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Bill Giving Judges More Leeway In Sentencing Drug Offenders Clears First House Stop

There’s now a bipartisan effort in the Florida Legislature to grant judges more flexibility when sentencing prescription drug offenders.  The measure passed through its first House Committee Tuesday, but attracted much opposition from state prosecutors and law enforcement officers. Bill supporters say it would allow people addicted to prescription drugs to get necessary drug treatment. But, others say the bill will roll back the progress made in recent years to halt the illegal flow of prescription drugs.

Under today’s state law, a Florida judge has no discretion to sentence a person below the mandatory minimum sentence when it comes to drugs.

The sentences vary depending on the type and quantity of a drug. For example,  if a person is caught trafficking between 14 and 28 grams of oxycodone, they’d receive a minimum mandatory sentence of at least 15 years with a $100,000 fine tacked on.

But, Democratic Representative Katie Edwards says while it’s important to make sure drug traffickers are caught and punished, she says the current law does nothing for the prescription drug offenders, who are addicts, and face the same criminal penalties as a drug trafficker.

“What my bill does is recognize that we need some discretion at the judicial level during sentencing. We need some criteria and factors in place to make sure that the person who hooked on oxycotin with 7 pills does not go to jail for three years. You guys know that person belongs either in drug court or in treatment. They don’t belong in a prison,” said Edwards.

The bill has the support of Florida Public Defenders Association, the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

But, it’s a different story for state prosecutors and law enforcement.

“The Attorney General is opposed to this bill, the State Attorneys are opposed to this bill. It’s a step backwards when we are finally having some success against these pills," said State Attorney for the 18th Circuit Philip Archer.

Archer says the discretion should stay with the state attorneys and law enforcement rather than leaving it up a judge. He adds if this bill becomes law, it will weaken years of progress and get in the way of the message the state is trying to send.

“If you’re caught with as little as seven pills and you’re selling to your classmates or you’re out on the street, and that’s the first time you get caught. You’re looking at a three year minimum mandatory. That’s a strong message that we can send to people that are dealing in this misery. You know, it’s polite to say that ‘what’s the big deal? No prior record. He’s got 7 or 8 pills, first time he’s dealing.’ These are the pills that are killing our young people—young and old alike,” Archer added.

But, Republican Representative Dave Hood, who sponsored an amendment to narrow the focus of the bill, says he thinks selective leniency is a good step toward stopping the wasting of lives on people who need treatment, not prison.

“We’re only talking about first offenders, non-violent, no prior history, and what we’re doing is putting the discretion in the one person in the courtroom who doesn’t have something to again, it’s the impartial observer: the judge,” said Hood.

Meanwhile, Electra Bustle with the Florida Sheriff’s Association takes a harder line.

“Crime in Florida is at a 40-year low. And, it’s not coincidental or accidental that that’s the case," Bustle remarked.

"We believe in part it’s because of the strong laws that this body has passed over the last 20 years—whether that’s 10-20 life or the 85-percent law or the 85-percent or the mandatory minimums. We cannot forget that as now we’re saying ‘well, with this group we want to make a shift.’”

The bill passed in the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee Tuesday 8 to 5 with both bipartisan support and opposition. It has two more stops to go before it heads to the House floor. Its next committee stop is the House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee.

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

Sascha Cordner has more than ten years of public radio experience. It includes working at NPR member station WUFT-FM in Gainesville for several years. She's worked in both radio and TV, serving in various capacities as a reporter, producer and anchor. She's also a graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in telecommunications. She is the recipient of 15 awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and Edward R. Murrow. Her award-winning stories include her coverage on the infamous “Dozier School for Boys” and a feature titled "Male Breast Cancer: Lost in the Sea of Pink." Currently, Sascha serves as the host and producer of local and state news content for the afternoon news program "All Things Considered" at WFSU. Sascha primarily covers criminal justice and social services issues. When she's not reporting, Sascha likes catching up on her favorite TV shows, singing and reading. Follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter:@SaschaCordner.