Like other states, Florida distinguishes felonies from misdemeanors by the amount of time a person could spend behind bars. Felonies carry penalties of more than a year and up to life in prison or the death penalty. The state classifies less serious crimes, punishable by up to a year in county jail, as misdemeanors.
This article will review the penalty, sentencing, and prison release options for felonies in Florida.
Felonies in Florida are classified as capital or life felonies or felonies of the first-, second-, or third-degree. Each felony classification carries a maximum penalty. Florida law also imposes harsh sentencing enhancements for repeat and violent offenders.
Life felonies are punishable by life imprisonment and a fine of up to $15,000. Examples of life felonies include kidnapping of a child younger than 13 and committing a sex offense, selling or buying minors into human trafficking, and committing sexual battery on a child younger than 12 that causes serious injuries.
Felonies of the first degree in Florida are usually punishable by up to 30 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. Aggravated battery (intentionally causing great bodily harm) on a law enforcement officer, carjacking, and burglary with assault or battery are examples of felonies of the first degree.
A conviction for a felony of the second degree can result in a prison term of up to 15 years and a fine of not more than $10,000. Examples include extortion, vehicular homicide, and felon in possession of firearms.
Felonies of the third degree are the least serious types of felonies in Florida, punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000. Examples include aggravated stalking, theft of a vehicle or firearm, and trespass while armed.
People in Florida who have previously been convicted of two or more felonies and are convicted of yet another felony may be sentenced to a lengthy prison term under one of Florida's recidivist sentencing schemes. Judges may impose extended prison terms for those designated as habitual or habitual violent felony offenders. Mandatory minimums apply to three-time violent felony offenders and violent career offenders.
Florida law requires judges to use a sentencing scoresheet to determine the parameters for imposing a felony sentence. The scoresheet calculates sentencing points based on offense severity (1 to 10), characteristics of the offense (injuries, firearms), and the offender's criminal history. Judges use the points total to guide decisions regarding the sentence term (the length) and disposition (prison or non-prison sanctions).
Non-prison sanctions. Judges must generally impose non-prison sanctions for offenders whose sentencing points total less than 44. Non-prison sanctions can include probation, community control, prison diversion, or split sentences (described below).
Prison sentence. If an offender's sentencing points score 44 or above, the law presumes a prison sentence. To determine the appropriate prison sentence, the judge inputs the sentencing points into a formula set in law. This formula gives the judge the "lowest possible prison sentence" for the offender. The judge may sentence anywhere between this lowest possible sentence and the maximum sentence authorized for the crime (based on the felony classifications noted above).
Prison sentence example. Let's say an offender commits a second-degree felony and scores 128 points on the sentencing scoresheet. Based on 128 points, the lower possible sentence for the offender is 75 months. (The formula takes the number of sentencing points minus 28 and then multiplies that total by .75. In our example, 128 - 28 = 100 x .75 = 75 months.) The law sets the maximum prison sentence in months at 180 months (15 years x 12). The judge can set the prison sentence anywhere between 75 and 180 months for this offender.
Florida law authorizes numerous sentencing alternatives to prison, including:
If a judge orders a split sentence, the offender generally must serve a period of incarceration and after will be placed on probation or community control.
Probation allows the offender to serve all or part of their sentence in the community. A judge may order probation to be supervised or unsupervised (administrative). The probationer must comply with the probation conditions to remain in the community. Conditions may include following all laws, reporting to a probation officer, working or seeking employment, completing community service hours, paying restitution, submitting to random drug tests, not using substances, and not possessing firearms.
The law allows judges to award graduated incentives for compliance, such as reducing community service hours, waiving supervision fees, switching to administrative probation, permitting travel, or early termination of probation. A violation, however, means the judge can modify probation, impose stricter conditions, or revoke probation and send the offender to prison.
For offenders not suitable for probation, a judge may order a more rigid and structured form of supervision that aims to punish offenders but keep them out of prison. This program—called community control—involves house arrest with limited freedom and intensive supervision and surveillance. Generally, offenders under community control must abide by conditions similar to probation, as well as other sanctions, such as revocation of driving privileges, curfews, deprivation of nonessential activities, and treatment.
Along with probation or community control, a judge may require the offender to participate in a prison diversion program. Run by the Department of Corrections, prison diversion may require residential or nonresidential programming, substance abuse treatment, or academic or vocational opportunities. It's only available to third-degree felony offenders whose sentencing points place them a few points into the presumptive prison range.
Florida law authorizes courts to develop a number of problem-solving courts, including drug, mental health, and veteran courts. A judge must order participation as a condition of probation or community control. Only those convicted of third-degree nonviolent felonies qualify. In a problem-solving court, the participant must agree to frequent court appearances and intense supervision by a team of professionals, including the judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, case managers, and specialists.
If offered by the district, a first-time offender charged with a third-degree felony may be eligible for pretrial intervention. Pretrial intervention offers first-time offenders a chance to avoid criminal court and a conviction. The defendant must agree to abide by the program requirements, such as receiving counseling, education, treatment, or supervision services. At the end of the intervention period, the state attorney may recommend one of the following: dismissal of the charges, additional supervision, or prosecution of the case.
Offenders sent to prison will generally serve 85% or more of their sentence. The sentence pronounced by the judge reflects the actual time that the offender must serve, which can be reduced by up to 15% by earning incentive and meritorious gain-time.
Gain-time. Eligible inmates earn gain-time by maintaining good behavior, working, training, earning an educational degree, or otherwise using time constructively. Meritorious gain-time is awarded for an inmate's outstanding deed or service, such as saving a life. Not all inmates qualify to earn gain time.
Conditional release. Inmates sentenced for certain violent crimes or designated as habitual, violent, career, or sexual offenders must serve a period of post-prison conditional release if they are released before the expiration of their sentence. Inmates subject to conditional release face strict supervision terms. Violating any of the terms can return the inmate to prison to finish their sentence.
In Florida, like many states, the government faces time limits to file criminal charges in a case. These time limits are called statutes of limitations. The statute of limitations begins to "run" when the defendant commits the crime. More serious crimes typically have longer statutes of limitations than less serious crimes.
In Florida, capital felonies, life felonies, and felonies that resulted in death have no statutes of limitations, meaning the state attorney can file the charges at any time. Felonies of the first degree typically have a four-year statute of limitations, while other felonies generally have a limitation period of three years. If the prosecutor files charges after these time limits expire, the defendant can ask the court to dismiss the charges.
A felony conviction can have severe and long-lasting consequences. In addition to imprisonment, a felony criminal record can make it hard to obtain a job or a promotion, qualify for certain government benefits, go to school, run for office, buy a gun, or volunteer. Very few felony convictions can be sealed or expunged under Florida law.
If you are charged with a felony in Florida, talk to a local criminal defense attorney about your case. An experienced attorney can help you understand your options and obtain the best possible outcome in your case.
(Fla. Stat. §§ 775.08, 775.081, 775.15, 921.002, 921.0024, 921.00241, 921.0026, 921.00265, 921.012, 921.187, 944.275, 948.01 (2021).)