Governor Signs Law on Petty Offenders; Mandatory Sentence for Habitual Offenders Has Leaders at Odds over Potential Results

By Rushing, J. Taylor | The Florida Times Union, June 24, 2004 | Go to article overview

Governor Signs Law on Petty Offenders; Mandatory Sentence for Habitual Offenders Has Leaders at Odds over Potential Results


Rushing, J. Taylor, The Florida Times Union


Byline: J. TAYLOR RUSHING, Capital Bureau Chief

TALLAHASSEE -- A proposal by Sheriff John Rutherford to crack down on habitual petty offenders became state law Wednesday, but Jacksonville leaders are split on whether it will backfire or be an unprecedented step forward.

Gov. Jeb Bush signed SB 1376, which requires judges to sentence anyone convicted of at least five misdemeanors within a year to a minimum of six months and a maximum of one year in a jail, residential treatment center or home detention. The bill had passed the Senate 38-0 on April 22 and the House by a 74-37 vote on April 30.

Critics call it Jacksonville's "Super Bowl bill," for its alleged intent to sweep panhandlers and transients from the city's downtown by February. Homeless advocates disagree on whether it will victimize the downtrodden, but even criminal justice officials say they are worried about the new law's effect on the county's already-stressed courts and jails.

Rutherford, who pushed the bill with the help of several Republican legislators, said it will help Duval County break the cycle of recidivism and actually help repeat offenders by exposing them to more treatment. The sheriff said there are 758 repeat offenders in Duval County with five or more misdemeanor convictions, costing taxpayers $10.3 million a year, largely because the plea process is too lenient.

"A lot of times, the worst of the worst never get treated and end up cycling through the jail," Rutherford said. "This is going to end that. We are not going after the homeless. I started this in 1996, before we even knew we were getting a Super Bowl, so it's got nothing to do with that. It's about the inhumane way we've treated this population."

Rutherford's bill has came under heavy fire from Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, however, who says the new law picks on the powerless.

"Sentencing a homeless person with mental health problems to prison for six months is not a good use of prison space or law enforcement resources," said Gelber, a former federal prosecutor. "And generally, there aren't any treatment centers available as an alternative. It just isn't a solution."

There is widespread anxiety, and differing opinions, among the criminal justice officials bracing for the law's effect. Bill White, Duval County's chief assistant public defender, said the law may force a need for more public defenders and jail space.

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Governor Signs Law on Petty Offenders; Mandatory Sentence for Habitual Offenders Has Leaders at Odds over Potential Results
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