On New Year's Day, Marcia O'Ferral relocated to Tallahassee, carrying all her belongings in her vehicle and all her hopes in her soul. Her singular mission upon arriving was to reform Florida's contentious "two-strikes" law, which threatens to confine her fiancé and individuals like him to a lifetime in prison.
However, facing Governor Ron DeSantis' endorsement of "law and order" policies, particularly with a potential presidential campaign on the horizon, her efforts to amend the Prison Releasee Reoffender law present a formidable challenge. This law empowers prosecutors to pursue and obtain maximum sentences – frequently lifetime sentences – for defendants who commit serious felonies within three years of a prior offense.
"I'm resolute in altering this law, and I'm optimistic that it's possible," O'Ferral declared.
Her fiancé, Steve Brana, earned his first strike following his arrest at 16 for burglary, and his second for armed robbery charges in 1997, coinciding with the passing of the law. Currently 47, Brana has spent over two decades in prison solely for his most recent charges.
Advocates for criminal justice reform and numerous family members of those incarcerated under the "two-strikes" law have long maintained that the law is excessively punitive, exceeding the reasonable limits of crime punishment.
Yet, the law enjoys the support of the Florida Sheriffs Association and several prosecutors, including State Attorney Jack Campbell of the 2nd Judicial Circuit. They assert that the law effectively removes dangerous criminals from society.
Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, and Rep. Kimberly Daniels, D-Jacksonville, introduced legislation in January aimed at reducing prison sentences under the "two-strikes" law, capping sentences for crimes like armed robbery at 25 years.
"I am of the belief that individuals should face the consequences if they commit a crime, but we need to approach justice and penalties intelligently," Rouson stated.
Over previous sessions, ex-Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg championed this legislation, which never gained momentum.
"I would greatly prefer to abolish the two-strikes law entirely, but I understand that achieving this politically in Florida is particularly challenging," he noted.
In January 1992, Brana, then a minor, and an associate were apprehended following a series of burglaries – suspected to exceed 50, according to news reports – in St. Lucie County. Brana, who was prosecuted as an adult and found guilty, served nearly four years in prison, gaining release in 1996.
Less than a year later, he was rearrested on armed robbery charges. Authorities linked Brana and others to the hold-ups of a Martin County bar, where a patron was battered with a pistol, and an Orange County bar, where a man was shot in the leg after pursuing the robbers outside.
Brana, facing charges of attempted murder and other crimes, was convicted on five counts of robbery with a deadly weapon – one for each patron involved at the bar in Martin County.
On the day of his conviction, the Triangle Lounge, the bar he was convicted of robbing, celebrated with a party.
"We've taken the criminals off the streets, and we're going to commemorate that tonight," a bartender informed the Stuart News.
Brana was given a life sentence. The defendant reportedly wielding the gun and a third person implicated in the robbery were not sentenced under the "two-strikes" law, receiving 30 and 20 years in prison, respectively.
"I see men in here every day charged with murder and rape who are being released," Brana remarked during a phone interview from Franklin Correctional Institution.
According to Brandes, the Legislature adheres to a 'toughen sentencing' philosophy.
Following years of fruitless attempts to reform the law, Brandes argued that most lawmakers either fail to comprehend the need for criminal justice reform or fear engaging with it, particularly given the Florida Sheriffs Association's endorsement of the law.
"The prevalent philosophy is that sentences should always be intensified," he stated.
Another obstacle is DeSantis, whose office declined to comment. Brandes suggests the governor is unlikely to back any changes.
"The issue we face currently is that DeSantis is campaigning for the presidency of the United States," he noted. "I think we need to persist in honing our message and sharing our stories for the next couple of years."
Some 7,216 Florida inmates are serving time under the Prison Releasee Reoffender law, according to Paul Walker, press secretary for the Department of Corrections. Of these, 2,223 are serving life sentences, which constitutes roughly a fifth of all life sentences in Florida.
Armed robbery is the second most frequently committed crime by "two-strikes" offenders, as per a report by the Florida Sheriffs Association. In 2020, individuals convicted of armed robbery constituted nearly 14% of all inmates serving time under the law.
The law has been disproportionately applied to Black men. A 2021 analysis by The Marshall Project and the Tampa Bay Times revealed that Black men comprised nearly three-quarters of those incarcerated due to the law.
Prosecutor's viewpoint: Lengthy prison sentences sometimes essential for public safety
Campbell, whose jurisdiction includes Leon and five neighboring counties, sees the "two-strikes" law as a formidable weapon against "the most dangerous criminals."
"There are individuals in our community who pose such a significant threat that the only way I can guarantee our safety is by seeking lengthy prison sentences," he said.
He also noted that the law provides flexibility when prosecuting defendants accused of multiple crimes involving multiple victims. After securing a life sentence for one of the crimes, he can dismiss the other charges, sparing the victims from the ordeal of testifying.
"Unless you've had a firearm aimed at you … I assure you, based on my experience with numerous individuals, it's extremely traumatic for them to recount that incident and confront the perpetrator," Campbell stated.
He expressed his "deepest sympathy" for those advocating on behalf of their loved ones.
"However, it should be remembered that a judge, a prosecutor, a defense attorney, and a jury all made decisions at some point," Campbell added.
Following an unlikely romance, she remains 'devoted.'
O'Ferral met Brana in prison about 18 months ago. Brana's mother, an old acquaintance of hers, lived across the state and was unable to visit as frequently as she wished. She didn't anticipate what transpired next. About a year later, they were engaged.
"As soon as we began to converse, there was an immediate connection," she recalled.
O'Ferral, originally from Panama City Beach, found an apartment in Tallahassee, which she shares with two college students. She secured employment at Publix and volunteers for a non-profit advocacy organization named Florida PRR Families United.
Florida's 'two-strikes' law: Tracing the history and impact of one of the US's most stringent sentencing laws
Following a series of state and federal court decisions that led to the premature release of hundreds of prisoners in Florida, the 1997 Legislature hastily passed one of the nation's most punitive sentencing laws.
Despite expressing apprehensions about the potential impact of the legislation, lawmakers unanimously endorsed the "two-strikes" law.
The law grants prosecutors the authority to pursue and obtain the maximum sentence for grave felony offenders if they recommit the offense within three years of their prison release.
"Public sentiment, I believe, holds that if an individual has already committed a felony, served jail time, and then repeats the offense upon release, they should not evade punishment," stated former state Sen. John Ostalkiewicz, R-Windermere, sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, as reported by The Ledger in April 1997.
There were concerns about the financial implications of the law. The state bears the cost of longer prison stays for those incarcerated. As inmates age, becoming more susceptible to chronic disease and other health issues, these costs escalate.
Prison officials projected the law would cost the state an additional $1.6 billion over ten years. Advocates expressed concerns that the rising costs would detract from vital programs.
"Our persistent need to inflate our prison budget means prevention programs like teen services, mental health, and drug abuse services are being starved," remarked Jack Levine, then executive director of the Florida Center for Children and Youth, as quoted in a May 1997 Orlando Sentinel article.
Former Representative Victor Crist, R-Tampa, chair of the House Justice Council and sponsor of the House bill, contended that the law would ultimately save the state money by reducing crime.
"The Department of Corrections' expenses will rise, but the costs for the judiciary and law enforcement will decline," he argued in the Orlando Sentinel article. "Moreover, it may help to stabilize or decrease insurance costs. Lives will be preserved."
The bill's fiscal impact wasn't the only concern prior to its passage.
Effects on Black Offenders Scrutinized
Black legislators initially opposed the new legislation, as reported by The Ledger in May 1997.
"The reality is that these laws tend to disproportionately affect minorities," former State Sen. William Turner, D-Miami, observed.
Turner noted that nearly 70% of those affected by a 1995 state law targeting "violent careers criminals" were Black, and the majority had been convicted of burglary.
To address these concerns, lawmakers agreed to mandate state prosecutors to periodically submit reports on the application of the prison offender law, as per The Ledger.
However, these concerns were realized.
According to a 2021 analysis by The Tampa Bay Times and The Marshall Project, Black men constitute nearly three-quarters of those sentenced under the law.