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The state's drug laws allow painkiller addicts to be charged as dealers and sent away for long sentences for possession of amounts of drugs that are common for people battling addiction though not necessarily selling - say backers of a proposed change to the sentencing law. A bill to give judges more discretion in cases where people are charged with trafficking was approved Monday in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. Supporters of the measure say people with a relatively small amount of prescription painkillers less than many addicts say they take in a day - can be charged with trafficking. Opponents, including police and prosecutors, say painkiller abuse has become the main drug problem police are fighting and urged lawmakers not to get rid of tough sentences. They argue that prosecutors have the discretion to decide to charge true addicts who aren't involved in dealing with simple possession. But often, prosecutors don't do that, argued Sarasota defense attorney Derek Byrd. "I've got a lot of clients sitting in prison right now who had 15 pills," Byrd told the panel. "It's just not fair. We are netting people who are not traffickers." The measure (SB 420), sponsored by Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, would allow judges to depart from minimum mandatory terms in some cases involving first time offenders. It was approved by the committee 6-1 with Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, the lone "no" vote.

Parole Commissioners Bernard R. Cohen, Sr., and Melinda Coonrod won unanimous confirmation votes from the Senate Criminal Justice Committee on Monday. Cohen, who is the commission's vice chairman, and formerly was a longtime Department of Corrections employee, was appointed in January of 2012. Coonrod, a former prosecutor, was appointed to the panel in June.

Though the original dispute already had been settled, an appeals court Friday ruled against the state Department of Financial Services in a dispute about whether Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater could block payment for historical photographs at a controversial Tallahassee courthouse. Judges from the 5th District Court of Appeal upheld an administrative law judge's opinion that sided with Peter R. Brown Construction Inc., the contractor on a project to build a new 1st District Court of Appeal building. The project has been highly controversial because of the opulence of the building, dubbed the "Taj Mahal." Atwater and former CFO Alex Sink tried to block $357,500 in payments to a subcontractor, Signature Art Gallery, for the historical photographs. But the appeals court found that the chief financial officer didn't have the legal authority to block the payments, which were approved by the state Department of Management Services. The ruling said part of state law "merely requires that the CFO examine, audit and settle all claims against the state. It does not provide or explicitly allow the CFO to restrict an agency's expenditures for particular categories of items unless such items are 'expressly' authorized. The CFO has no authority to supervise the operation of other state officers or state agencies in the exercise of the discretion vested in them by law." Judges from the 5th District Court of Appeal were appointed to handle the case because of the controversy surrounding the 1st District Court of Appeal. Amid the dispute, lawmakers approved a settlement that paid Signature Art Gallery.

Four incumbent House members have filed documents recently to seek re-election in 2014, while Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, is preparing to run again in 2016, according to the state Division of Elections website. The House members are Rep. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, in District 21; Rep. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, in District 54; Rep. Cynthia Stafford, D-Miami, in District 109; and Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, in District 116. Meanwhile, Bullard has filed documents as a first step toward seeking re-election in 2016 in Senate District 39. Also, non-incumbents filing recently for 2014 races were North Fort Myers Republican Terry Bowen Cramer in House District 79 and Coral Springs Democrat Steven Perman in House District 96. Cramer would run against incumbent Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, while Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek, will be term-limited in 2014 in District 96. Filing the paperwork, at least in part, allows candidates to raise money.

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