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Florida Legislative Roundup For November 2019

This year, Florida legislators passed a variety of bills and measures that will shape the way addiction is treated in the state. Among this legislation includes the Florida First Step Act, which addresses criminal justice reform, and amendments to the 911 Good Samaritan Act of 2012, which adds protections for those seeking help from a drug or alcohol overdose.

CS/CS/HB 595: Alcohol or Drug Overdose Prosecutions

With the number of alcohol-related deaths rising annually, especially among those ages 18-24, Governor Ron DeSantis signed HB595 in August to ensure “people drinking under the age of 21 do not face legal penalties if they seek medical help for someone in danger.”

This bill amends the 911 Good Samaritan Act passed in 2012 by adding protections for anyone seeking emergency medical help on behalf of someone experiencing a drug or alcohol overdose. The original bill stated, “A person may not be charged, prosecuted, or otherwise penalized if his or her possession of a controlled substance is discovered as a result of a good faith effort to seek such medical assistance for himself, herself, or another person.” But the bill did not protect that person from being arrested for possession of a controlled substance, and even though it prohibited prosecution for possession, local law enforcement could still file charges for other offenses.

Amendments to the bill include:

  • Extending immunity for use or possession of drug paraphernalia, violation of pretrial release, probation, or parole and a person seeking aid for an alcohol overdose.
  • Limiting immunity for possession of a controlled substance to exclude possession of more than 10 grams of certain substances, such as fentanyl and heroin.
  • Adding protection from arrest for a person seeking aid for an alcohol or drug overdose victim.
  • Extending immunity to a person who mistakenly, but in good faith, seeks assistance believing that he, she, or another person is experiencing an alcohol or drug overdose.

The bill incentivizes a person to seek medical assistance for an alcohol or drug overdose by providing immunity for specific offenses, including:

  • Providing alcohol to a person under 21 years old
  • Possessing or consuming alcohol when under 21 years old.

Florida First Step Act

Inspired by the federal FIRST STEP Act, the Florida First Step Act proposed allowing judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines and to use their discretion when sentencing non-violent drug offenders. The current mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines have resulted in first-time offenders arrested for selling a few pills receiving the same prison sentences as violent, repeat drug offenders.

As Greg Foster, an ex-offender, told ABC News, “They’re ending up in prison for the same amount of time as somebody that’s been in and out of…prison for selling drugs their entire life and…it’s spirit-breaking.” The act would also require inmates to be assigned to a facility within 300 miles of their home, enabling families to visit more regularly.

The legislation, which passed the legislature in a highly modified form this spring, was the brainchild of Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, who explained, “I’m somebody who believes that we need to look at the individual circumstances of a crime and make determinations based on that. Under Florida law, we largely throw mandatory minimum sentences at people and don’t give judges the opportunity to actually judge a case.”

While the federal FIRST STEP Act passed Congress by a wide margin and has led to the release of several inmates who had served decades in prison, some advocacy groups, like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), feel the Florida bill doesn’t go far enough. They contend the bill needs to address racial inequality in Florida’s criminal justice system, as well as allocate more money for mental health and addiction treatment, according to an op-ed published in the Tampa Bay Times.

Micah Kubic, executive director of ACLU of Florida, Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, and Shalini Goel Agarwal, senior supervising attorney for the SPLC Action Fund, urge sponsors of the Florida First Step Act to make five changes, including studying the racial impact of the act, adding protections for people who have previously served jail time, adding additional benefits for inmates for “good behavior and rehabilitation,” funding the state’s correctional department, including its mental health and addiction treatment programs, and cutting back on “technical violations” of probation that send people back to jail.

In May, the Tallahassee Democrat reported that efforts to keep the bill alive required lawmakers to remove some key provisions, including the leeway for judges on mandatory minimum sentence guidelines. Senator Brandes continues to view the bill as a positive “first step” in criminal justice reform in Florida.

Florida Amendment 11

Last year, Florida voters passed Florida Amendment 11, removing the constitutional provision that an amendment, or change, to a criminal statute, does not affect the prosecution of a crime committed before the statute’s amendment. In other words, before the amendment passed; Florida did not allow people sentenced for an offense to have their sentence revised if the law governing that crime had since changed.

Lauren Krisai, senior policy analyst at the Justice Action Network and co-author of the Reason investigation on “How Florida Entraps Pain Patients”, said, “Now’s the time for meaningful criminal justice reform. There are hundreds of inmates serving sentences for years longer than those who are being sentenced for the same crimes today. I hope the legislature begins to correct this injustice in 2019—thankfully Amendment 11 cleared that pathway.”

Turning Point of Tampa’s goal is to always provide a safe environment and a solid foundation in 12-Step recovery, in tandem with quality individual therapy and groups. We have been offering Licensed Residential Treatment for Addiction, Eating Disorders and Dual Diagnosis in Tampa since 1987.

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