Bill Giving Judges Sentencing Discretion For Certain Illegal Drug Offenders Put On Hold

Feb 10, 2014

Florida lawmakers are holding off on a bill revising the minimum mandatory penalties for the trafficking of certain illegal drugs, after questions were raised in its first Senate hearing Monday.

Tampa Democratic Senator Arthenia Joyner says her bill allows a judge not to impose the three-year minimum mandatory penalty for a first offense of trafficking small amounts of illegal drugs, including cocaine or LSD. She says judges currently only have that discretion with juvenile offenders.

“But, if a person, who for the first time, is caught with 20 grams of cocaine, working family, employed, upstanding, first offense, the judge has no discretion, unless the prosecutor says give me some substantial assistance or decides to charge them with something less that doesn’t fall under the mandatory minimum. That is the person I was trying to get at,” said Joyner.

The bill has the support of the Florida Public Defenders Association, but not the Florida Sheriff’s Association or State Attorneys. The Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association’s Buddy Jacobs says unlike a similar bill aiming to revise the penalties for trafficking prescription drugs like hydrocodone and oxycodone, Joyner’s bill was never fully studied.

“We’ve been working two years, there was an OPPAGA study that said something needed to be done with this. All of law enforcement and the criminal defense bars in support of SB 360 with Senator Bradley and Representative Edwards in the House. And, these minimum mandatories we’re attempting to change today have a good reason to be here, and I would hope that we would, in the same way, seek a reason to make that change,” said Jacobs.

Republican lawmakers also raised concerns about what some called “multiple flaws” with the measure, including an area that particularly worried Duval County Sheriff John Rutherford.

“Sadly, I can tell you we rarely catch the bad guys the first time they do it, we rarely catch the bad guys trafficking the first time they do it. We’re lucky if we catch them 1 out of 10. But, worse than that, you have to have a conviction. And, you have to have a conviction, according to this bill, for each of the 12 specified drugs in the minimum mandatory schedule, which means you can actually have 12 individual first-time convictions, which would preclude application of the minimum mandatory,” said Rutherford.

Joyner says that was not her intent, and acknowledged she’d hoped to get that fixed at the bill’s next stop. But, at the urging of Republicans on the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, she temporarily postponed the measure, as she tries to iron out all the concerns.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.