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Sweeping Legislation Would End Mandatory Minimum Drug Sentences In Florida

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Florida was among the first states to pass mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws in 1979.

The Legislature loosened those requirements in 1993, then reinstated them six years later.  Now, a sweeping proposal of criminal justice reforms in Tallahassee would again make changes.

The proposed legislation was bolstered this week by the release of a study showing Florida should reconsider its policy on drug sentences. One of the biggest provisions of the Florida First Step Actwould end mandatory minimum sentences related to drug trafficking.

“Florida’s system today doesn’t allow judges to be judges,” says Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. He filed the bill, which piggybacks on recent changes at the federal level. "They don’t get to look at the individual facts of the crime. They don’t actually go through the sentencing process and try to determine if the sentence actually fits the crime. That discretion was taken away from them by the legislature.”

Brandes’ comments coincided with the release of a policy brief by the James Madison Institute, a Tallahassee think tank, and the advocacy group FAMM that promotes criminal justice reforms.

The brief found that Florida could save millions of dollars a year – and do a better job of fighting crime – by getting rid of mandatory minimum drug sentences.

Greg Newburn, State Policy Director of FAMM, says the goal of mandatory minimum sentences was to convince drug users to stop using and scare away drug dealers and traffickers. The result would be cleaner streets and fewer drug deaths.

He says that’s not what happened.  

Newburn: Every one of the identifiable goals of the policy has not only failed to be met, but the opposite has occurred. We have more drugs on the street now per capita than we did (when the policy was enacted); drug prices are lower, indicating greater supply; we have a higher drug overdose rate now than then.

WFSU: What do you think has been maybe the biggest unintended consequence of these requirements?

Newburn: It was intended only to be used on major drug traffickers. Instead, we’re talking about people addicted to drugs, people who are painkiller addicts who have just a few too many pills on them, they’re taking drugs on behalf of a drug dealer across town - and they’re pulled over, and they’re caught with too much, and they’re doing it so they can get their next fix. Nobody wanted these laws to apply to those people.

WFSU: Let’s talk about how Floridians might benefit if this is changed.

Newburn: Right now, Florida taxpayers are paying a little more than $100-million every year incarcerating drug offenders who are serving mandatory minimum sentences. In return for that, they get almost no public safety benefit whatsoever. That money could be used in ways that do deliver effective public safety outcomes: hiring more police, hiring more prosecutors, actually solving murders and rapes.

WFSU: What about the idea that they did the crime, these are serious crimes, and they need to be punished?

Newburn: That’s exactly right. If you commit a crime, you should be punished. What that particular analysis leaves out is, what should the punishment be and what should the structure be that determines the punishment? With mandatory minimums, the punishment is set by statute by a legislature decades ago. They never saw a victim; they never saw an offender; they don’t know the circumstances of the offense. That’s why we get these just utterly obscene outcomes – 25 years for selling 35 pills, which is not a particularly rare occurrence.

Gina Jordan is the host of Morning Edition for WFSU News. Gina is a Tallahassee native and graduate of Florida State University. She spent 15 years working in news/talk and country radio in Orlando before becoming a reporter and All Things Considered host for WFSU in 2008. Follow Gina: @hearyourthought on Twitter. Click below for Gina's full bio.