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Surprising Changes To Sentencing Laws

CRIMINAL DEFENSE FORUM

by: Mark Eiglarsh

Introduction
On October 30, 1993, South Florida was struck with yet another tragedy. Detective Evelyn Gort, with the then, Metro-Dade Police Department, was shot and killed. It was reported that Detective Gort was murdered after having just been robbed of three dollars and a set of keys. Citizens were outraged to learn that the perpetrator, who was supposed to be serving a lengthy sentence, was released early from prison. Examples of early releases from prison were common about a decade ago. The question is, was anything done to rectify the problem? Additionally, what, if anything, have legislators done to ensure that violent and/or career criminals spend the amount of time in prison that was intended. The answer may surprise you.

Sentences Served Before 1995
Prior to 1995, a prison sentence had minimal relationship to the actual time that criminals served in prison. Things like parole, early prison release, and earning significant gaintime resulted in substantially shorter periods of actual incarceration. For example, upon entering prison to begin serving their sentences, inmates received "basic gaintime" which immediately reduced sentences by one-third. Inmates then received "incentive gaintime" which shaved off up to an additional twenty days per month for every month served. Furthermore, inmates still received "early prison release" due to overcrowding. Therefore, it wasn't uncommon for an inmate who received a 10 year sentence to be out of custody within a year.

Sentences Served After 1995
The 1995 Sentencing Guidelines and Criminal Punishment Code were implemented to drastically change the amount of time inmates were actually serving. Under the new laws, Florida state inmates sentenced for a crime that took place after 1995 could still receive up to ten days per month served of "incentive gaintime." However, gaintime could not cause inmates to serve below 85% of their sentence. It bears repeating and emphasizing: All inmates sentenced for crimes occurring after 1995 must serve 85% of their sentence. No longer are there provisions for additional gaintime, parole, and/or early release. As a result of the "85% policy," the Department of Corrections reports that inmates are now serving longer prison terms than any year over the past two decades. In fact, statistics reveal that actual time served has increased by 50% from approximately 1980-2000 and by over 200% from the late 1980's to today. Approximately 10% of the offenders sentenced under the current policy will serve more than ten years in prison compared to just 3.5% when early prison release existed. Those inmates convicted of violent offenses are serving much longer sentences today than any time in the past two decades. For example, those inmates convicted of murder and manslaughter will serve an average of 22 years in prison compared to approximately 10 years if sentenced in the late 1980's. Those who committed lewd acts on children served a little over two years in prison in the late 80's. Under the current sentencing policy, these same offenders will serve closer to 6 years in prison, resulting in an increase of over 150%. Finally, armed robbery offenders today will serve approximately 10.5 years compared to approximately 3 years in the late 1980's.

Longer Sentences For Career/Violent Offenders
Not only are criminals serving more time in Florida Prisons than ever before, but violent and/or career offenders are facing stiffer penalties because of numerous changes in the sentencing laws. Prior to 1999, if a gun was used during the commission of a crime, the courts could impose a three year minimum mandatory sentence. Governor Bush's "10-20-Life" law raised the minimum mandatory sentence to ten years for an offender who simply possessed a gun during a crime, regardless of whether it was actually used. Additionally, if the offender shot the gun, the mandatory prison penalty was increased to twenty years. Finally, the law increased the mandatory prison sentence to twenty five years to life if the person using the handgun shot someone. The Department of Corrections claims that in only four years, from 1998-2002, 10-20-Life has helped drive down violent gun crimes 25% statewide. Prosecutors, as always, still have vast discretion in determining how much time convicts will serve. When deemed appropriate, they may waive minimum mandatory sentences and/or offer below guidelines plea offers.

Conclusion
Over the past several years, Florida's sentencing laws and Department of Correction's policies have changed dramatically. Inmates are now serving a minimum of 85% of their time and being sentenced to significantly more time. It appears that the considerable changes in Florida sentencing that many citizens sought are on the books and having an enormous impact on Florida's criminal justice system.