Hoping to encourage tougher sentences for crimes committed with guns, a Jacksonville congressman resurrected a bill this month to pass $100 million in federal grants to states that approve mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
The primary requirement for a state to be eligible is at least a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for criminals who posses a firearm when committing a violent or serious drug trafficking crime, according to a draft of the bill submitted Feb. 8 by Rep. Ander Crenshaw, R-Fla.
"It is going to get the word out on the street that gun violence won't be tolerated," said Crenshaw, a former state legislator elected last fall to replace Tillie Fowler in the 4th Congressional District. "If you commit a violent crime and use a gun, you're going to jail for at least five years -- no ifs, ands or buts."
Under the 10-20-Life law in Florida, felons convicted for those crimes are already subject to a mandatory minimum of 10 years if they possess a firearm, 20 years if the gun is fired and 25 years to life if anyone is killed or seriously injured.
Florida, then, would be automatically eligible for the grants, along with at least 19 other states, according to a 1998 report on sentencing laws conducted by the Bureau of Justice Assistance.
The grants would only be usable to build or expand prisons or support law enforcement agencies, such as police departments, courts and probation officers. The money also could be used for media campaigns to inform the public of the sentencing rules, similar to television commercials running in Florida about 10-20-Life.
Jacksonville could benefit from the proposal either indirectly, through grants to the state government, or directly, via sub-grants passed down to local governments. Both the mayor and the State Attorney's Office are certainly willing to accept federal dollars, but both also warned that the program is not a simple balm for gun violence.
As a former prosecutor, Mayor John Delaney emphasized that mandatory minimums on gun crime cannot -- and should not -- prevent prosecutors from using plea bargains for lesser crimes to skirt the sentencing regulations.
"The nature of modern prosecution is that you have to plea bargain, so you never get the sentence you want," Delaney said. "You have to compromise most of the time, and the tougher sentencing alternatives are healthy tools for the justice system to use."
One limitation of the bill is an apparent ban on using the grants for crime prevention programs, a concern to Delaney and Jay Plotkin, chief assistant state attorney.
"We're very supportive of aggressive prosecution of gun crime, and that's always been one of this office's major priorities," Plotkin said. …