Tough Sentencing Guidelines Ignored DOC Stats Show Judges Are Lenient

Article excerpt

TALLAHASSEE -- Prosecutors and tough-on-crime legislators call

every year for ending prison sentencing guidelines and

unleashing Florida's judges to hand out longer sentences.

But statistics indicate that, if left to their own devices,

judges might be more lenient instead of tougher.

Figures compiled by the Department of Corrections show that

judges impose prison sentences more lenient than mandated by the

guidelines more often than they impose tougher ones. The

guidelines, set by the state Legislature, specify how long a

judge should sentence a defendant to prison.

The more legislators raise the prison sentences in the

guidelines, the more often judges exercise their prerogative to

deviate from them.

Since the guidelines were revised and strengthened Jan. 1,

1994, Florida judges have sentenced defendants more leniently

than called for in the guidelines 58 percent of the time.

While comparable rates are not available for cases in which

sentences are issued above the guidelines, corrections officials

said this rate has historically run about 3 percent statewide.

Some legislators, such as Senate Criminal Justice Chairman

Locke Burt, ROrmond Beach, are irate.

"It is outrageous that judges are deviating downward that

much," Burt said in an interview. "It shows there is a

fundamental difference of opinion between judges and the state

Legislature."

But others, such as House Criminal Justice Chairman Elvin

Martinez, D-Tampa, see it as an example of the gap between

law-and-order rhetoric and reality.

Burglaries and drug offenses make up the greatest number of

lower prison sentences, Martinez said, despite talk of cracking

down on those crimes.

He said any attempts to improve on the guidelines would have to

avoid demagoguery.

"What we really need is an honest dialogue to try to get them

at the proper level," Martinez said. "But it would have to be an

honest dialogue."

Circuit Judge O.H. Eaton of Sanford, former chairman of the

criminal justice section of the Florida Conference of Circuit

Judges and a member of the Florida Sentencing Commission, said

plea bargaining accounts for most of the more lenient sentences.

The courts have the resources to try only about 3 percent of

the cases and in the others must negotiate with the defendants,

Eaton said.

"I do a lot of departures where I've got a drug addict and he

needs to go to drug treatment," Eaton said. …