Does Florida’s sentencing code favor property over victim crimes?

FORT MYERS, Fla. “Bella’s” baby only lived eight months.

He was born premature and had medical issues, but Bella doesn’t contribute those factors to his death.

She blames the man she tried escaping from.

Bella’s real name has been withheld to protect her identity, along with particular details about her ordeal, including names, dates and locations.

Bella was 12-years-old when she started having sex with an older man.

“I went along with it because I was scared,” she said.

The relationship continued for 18 years despite her attempts to leave, she said.

Eventually she escaped, started dating someone and was expecting a child.

Then the older man found her.

An arrest report detailed the two-day ordeal where Bella was physically abused and was threatened with death.

Again, she escaped.

This time he was arrested.

The man pleaded guilty to domestic battery by strangulation and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

He received probation.

“Now he was really going to be mad,” Bella said. “He was going to get out because I put him in there, and now he was really going to kill me.”

Life for property crimes

The longest sentence given for domestic battery strangulation in Lee County last year was 180 days, according to data from the Lee County Clerk of Court.

The offense is a third-degree felony in Florida, which by itself, has a maximum sentence of five years.

But some burglary suspects are faced with much longer time.

Eddie Smith, an inmate at the DeSoto County Jail, faced a maximum life sentence when charged with armed burglary.

Smith, who previously served time as a juvenile for robbery and battery, was accused of stealing $20,000 and two firearms from an Arcadia home.

He took a plea deal and is serving five years.

“I can go to trial, and if I lose I can get up to life, and I didn’t do anything, but it’s a gamble,” he said.

Point differentials

Each crime in Florida receives a certain amount of sentencing points.

Extra points are given based on criminal history and the severity of the victim’s injuries.

Smith, the accused burglar, had 74 points.

Bella’s abuser started with 36 points.

“My belief that the legislature wants there to be enhanced protections for somebody’s home for their domicile,” said Lance Dunford, a Fort Myers criminal defense attorney not involved with either case.

Unarmed burglaries, with a maximum sentence of 15 years, have more points than domestic battery by strangulation.

Other felonies with lesser points include solicitation of a minor via computer and abuse of an elderly person.

More points are given for armed burglary – Smith faced a life sentence – than sexual battery, molesting an elderly person or having sex with a minor. The latter offenses only carry a maximum sentence of 15 years.

“I like to think in this county we have very good competent prosecutors who can see the trees through the forest,” Dunford said.

Prosecutors can add between 4 and 240 points for victim’s injuries.

Such isn’t always available in property crimes, Dunford said.

In Bella’s case, her abuser received 4 extra points for her injuries.

Domestic violence measure falls short

Despite the point differences, Yaro Garcia believes domestic violence sentencing has come a long way.

But Garcia, formerly the clinical director for Abuse Counseling and Treatment, Inc., believes more needs to be done.

There hasn’t been a push to strengthen domestic violence sentences in 10 years, she said.

“I think in part there was a satisfaction there, that we had gotten really far, and we had gotten these sentences and these laws that were really supportive compared to what we had 30-40 years ago,” Garcia said.

A bill requiring enhanced notifications of domestic violence injunctions among law enforcement agencies was passed by the legislature and is awaiting Gov. Rick Scott’s signature.

Sen. Lizbeth Benaquisto (R-Lee), committee vice-chairwoman, did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

A list of Senate Judiciary Committee members can be found here.

A list of House Judiciary Committee members can be found here.

The State Attorney’s Office that handled Bella’s case declined an interview.

Reporter:Lauren Sweeney