A bipartisan group of Florida legislators has proposed to tighten a widely used legal break that has enabled people who repeatedly commit serious crimes to avoid felony convictions. Under the proposal, offenders who have already earned a so-called withhold of adjudication could get a second break only if they remain clean for at least five years and if the prosecutor agrees.
The proposal comes a week after The Miami Herald published a series of stories detailing how withholds of adjudications evolved from being rarely used plea-bargaining tools to becoming commonly awarded, even in cases involving sex offenders and child abusers. White offenders were nearly twice as likely to get the break and avoid a criminal conviction as blacks. “The Herald’s analysis suggested that withholds have become nothing more than a case management tool,” said Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, who wrote the bill.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Stan Blake, who oversees the criminal division, said the legislation is not a bad idea, but he worries about the overall effect of laws that limit judicial discretion. “I think if a bill is well tailored, there is no harm in limiting something that, at times, has been abused,” he said. “However, we also have to be careful not to take away from the independence of the judiciary.”
Kenneth Hassett, president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers-Miami Chapter, complained that under the proposal, a teen charged separately with breaking into four cars over a weekend could only earn a withhold for one of the break-ins. “So he ends up a convicted felon,” Hassett said. “One weekend’s mistake could end up destroying a young person’s life. Withholds save lives by keeping still-productive members of society working, voting and living above the poverty line.”
Prosecutors — even though they regularly offer the break — say there is no excuse for an offender collecting repeat withholds. “It’s an abuse,” said Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle. “The Herald’s report dramatically portrayed the lack of checks and balances that exist in the use of withholds of adjudication, especially with repeat withholds.”
Other states like California, Texas, North Carolina and Georgia, limit the ability of offenders to repeatedly avoid felony convictions.