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Criminal reform bill could mean big changes for Florida

Florida's criminal justice system has been struggling under the weight of mandatory minimum sentencing and the collateral damage of the "War on Drug" for decades. Now, a set of reforms that are working their way through the state's legislature may help change things for the better.

The bill, which was sponsored by Senator Jeff Brandes, aims to change a number of things about the way that criminal cases are handled. Part of the senator's focus is on changing the way the state's prisons operate, focusing more on rehabilitation than punishment in order to keep inmates from cycling in and out of the system.

In particular, however, the bill takes aim at the use of mandatory minimums -- a by-product of anti-drug laws that have tied judges' hands when it comes to prison sentences and caused the prison population to swell dramatically. In the senator's words, "The criminal justice system is broken."

It seems like a lot of people agree with him. The bill is finding supporters among conservatives and progressives alike. However, while the Florida senate seems to be leaning heavily toward relaxing the mandatory sentencing laws, their congressional counterpart responded with a proposal of its own that lacks those provisions. Some members of congress expressed worry that easing mandatory minimums would send a signal to criminals that Florida has gone "soft" on crime and start a crime wave.

In reality, mandatory minimums for many crimes -- especially drug crimes -- unnecessarily restrict judges from doing what they're supposed to do during the sentencing phase, which is deter future criminal behavior as well as punish for past actions. Too many cases end up with a defendant in prison instead of rehab, where he or she really belongs.

While it's too early to determine how these proposals will ultimately play out and what will become law, it's not too early to get help if you're in trouble due to drug charges. An experienced attorney may be able to improve your future significantly.

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