Florida’s criminal law imposes significant sentencing enhancements on already harsh prison sentences dolled out by Florida judges. Florida’s state legislature designed the state’s punishment structure to severely punish repeat offenders. Florida prosecutors use the leverage they gain by charging people with crimes and offender enhancements to impose draconian prison terms.
Many people facing criminal charges know them, and fear them, by other names. Florida’s sentencing enhancements are also known as PRR, or prison releasee re-offender, HFO, or Habitual Felony Offender, HFVO, or Habitual Violent Felony Offender, VCC is also known as a violent career criminal, three-time violent felony offender, and Florida’s 10/20/Life law.
Philosophy of Sentencing Enhancements
State’s Attorneys in Florida possess the prosecutorial discretion to issue sentencing enhancement charges. Sentencing enhancements are based on the criminal record of the defendant and are often used by prosecutors to “make the streets safer” by locking up people who have committed crimes in the past but might not otherwise be the menaces to society the government would have you believe.
Sentencing enhancements are essentially minimum-mandatory prison terms. By their nature, sentencing enhancements do not allow a judge to sentence the offender to a lesser sentence than prescribed by law. In other words, the judges have no discretion when sentencing people facing charges that could lock someone away for life in some instances, even if the individual before the court does not deserve such a harsh penalty.
Sentencing enhancements do not violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, even though sentencing structures that impose criminal sanctions without regard for the individual and simply punish the crime are quickly becoming disfavored. One could argue that the sentencing judge is giving individualized attention to the offender before the court when handing down a minimum-mandatory sentencing enhancement required by statute because the enhancement takes into consideration the defendant’s record. A criminal history is only one facet of the person.
Under Florida’s Criminal Punishment Code, a person charged with a crime receives a score based on established criteria, including the number of previous convictions and the severity of the crimes for which the person was convicted. The score guides the judge toward imposing an appropriate criminal sanction. The judge may impose a less-severe sentence than required by the Code if justifiable reasons exist to depart downward. Sentencing enhancements remove the discretion from the sentencing judge and place it squarely on the shoulder of the prosecution.
The prosecution cannot argue for an enhanced sentence without warning. The accused must receive notice and have the opportunity to defend against enhanced penalty structures.
Discussion of Florida’s Sentencing Enhancement Scheme
- PRR or Prison Releasee Offender
The state’s attorney must move to qualify the accused as “PRR.” To qualify as PRR, the offender will have committed a new crime within three years after release from incarceration (or while a fugitive after a conviction) on a felony charge. Additionally, the new charge must fall within a specified list of offenses to qualify as a PRR prosecution.
Some of the offenses that qualify an individual for a PRR prosecution if committed within the first three years after release as delineated by Florida Statute 775.082(9)(a)(1) from prison are:
- Murder or Manslaughter,
- Sexual Battery,
- Home Invasion,
- Armed Burglary,
- Burglary of a dwelling or of another structure while occupied,
- Carrying a weapon during a criminal act, and
- Charges involving sexual abuse of a minor.
The minimum mandatory sentence for a conviction upon any of those charges is the maximum sentence for the charge. Florida law does not allow PPR offenders to receive good time or gain time and must serve a sentence “day-for-day.”
The statute allows the prosecuting authority to use its discretion when recommending a lesser sentence than otherwise imposed by law. However, the state legislature has spoken and included language in the statute itself, indicating a preference for offenders to receive the maximum punishment allowed by law.
2. Habitual Felony Offender
A person convicted in Florida — or perhaps even another state — of two or more felony offenses gives the prosecution the discretion to pursue a Habitual Felony Offender prosecution against an individual as permitted by Florida Statute 775.84. The state’s attorney bears the burden of proving that an offender qualifies as an HFO by a fair preponderance of the evidence.
A person charged as an HFO faces increased incarcerated sanctions provided that the prosecution meets its burden to show that the government successfully moved to designate the offender as an HFO, the offender has two convictions for felony charges (the disposition of withholding of adjudication for a felony charge is a conviction under the HFO statute as does a plea of nolo contendre), the two underlying convictions occurred on separate occasions, the person committed the “new offense” while serving a sentence for a felony within five years after serving a sentence for a felony or five years after the last felony conviction, whichever is later, and the offender was not pardoned by the governor for any of the underlying offenses supporting the offender’s HFO designation. Convictions for possession of controlled substances do not qualify for treatment as a habitual felony offender.
The sentencing judge enjoys some discretion when sentencing a person designated as a habitual felony offender. The judge may disregard the designation of the offender as a habitual felony offender, provided that the judge determines that the sentence is unnecessary to protect the public. If the court rules that the HFO designation does not apply, then the judge can sentence the defendant according to the score established by the Florida Criminal Punishment Code and refuse to impose the sentencing enhancements.
However, if the judge finds that the sentencing enhancement for the defendant is in the best interest of protection of the public, then the offender may be punished as follows:
- Life in prison for a life felony or a first-degree felony,
- No more than 30 years for a second-degree felony, and
- No more than 10 years for a third-degree felony.
The offender may receive gain time or good time, as calculated by the Department of Corrections.