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
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
"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
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,
"I do a lot of departures where I've got a drug addict and he
needs to go to drug treatment," Eaton said. …