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Law Enforcement Groups Try To 'Debunk The Myth' Low-Level Drug Offenders Are Nonviolent

Ryan Dailey

As Republican and Democratic Florida lawmakers push criminal justice reform bills through both chambers, law enforcement groups published a report they say legislators should contemplate. The Florida Sheriffs and Police Chiefs associations are trying to prove low-level drug offenders are violent, and took that argument to the Capitol Tuesday.

Walton County Sheriff Mike Adkinson is former president of the Florida Sheriffs Association. Now, he’s chairing a group that published a recent report the Sheriffs Association says “debunks the myth” that drug offenders in state prisons are non-violent.

“There is this debate in Florida now about either incarceration or rehabilitation. We think that’s a false dichotomy – we think it should be both,” Adkinson told media during a press conference, flanked by members of both groups. “They go hand-in-hand.”

The report was published by the newly-launched Florida Sheriffs Research Institute. The numbers he chose paint a picture that those convicted of drug offenses also have previous forcible felonies on their record.

“In fact, these are people who have been committed to county jails 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 times, before graduating to the Florida penitentiary,” Adkinson said.

The report reads 85 percent of the nearly 11,000 inmates the research institute looked at have previous violent felonies.

Among the criminal justice reforms being pushed this session are some allowing judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders, and some allowing incarcerated people to use more time earned for good behavior to knock time off a sentence.

Republican Senator Rob Bradley backs the bill concerning mandatory minimums.

“For instance, if the defendant is an addict who shows potential in life, and is able to demonstrate that to the court, the court could fashion a sentence where probation is more appropriate than spending seven years in prison,” Bradley said of his bill before it was sent to the Senate floor.  “And we could perhaps reclaim a life, rather than send that individual to a life that is very expensive for taxpayers and will not have a lot of hope for the future.”

Bradley’s bill wouldn’t apply to drug offenders who have a prior forcible felony, or who possessed or sold fentanyl. He says low-level drug offenders serving lesser sentences pose no threat.

“What we now know is, we can divert low-level drug offenders from state prison and it won’t affect public safety,” Bradley said in January. “In fact, it may make us safer.”

Rep. Diane Hart backs a House bill looking to increase the amount of gain time inmates can use to reduce their sentence. She heard the law enforcement associations’ arguments firsthand, and gave a rebuttal as soon as their press conference wrapped.

“What they’re saying makes no real sense to me. Figure out, how do we get some of these folk out of our system, to make it safer for their correctional officers – we have a turnover that’s unbelievable,” Hart said. “It’s unsafe.”

Asked about the ailing state of the Department of Corrections, and whether he sees any value in attempts to thin the bulging prison population – Adkinson had this to say:

“Failure to do the right thing because it’s expensive is an abdication of leadership, so that doesn’t fly with me. At the end of the day it is expensive, there are fundamental changes that need to be applied to both community-based supervision, and the Department of Corrections. But I don’t think we have the moral authority to say, ‘It’s too expensive to do the right thing.’”

Bradley has previously said the reforms he’s pushing aren’t about money.

“I’m not advocating for this bill because it’s a way to save money - I’m advocating for this because I think this is the right thing to do,” Bradley said. “I think that judges should be allowed to be judges in the particular circumstances, when you’re dealing with drug crimes.”

Reading the Sheriff’s Research Institute’s report and hearing Adkinson talk about it might give the impression the group is opposed to criminal justice reforms proposed this session. But when asked which legislation he disagrees with, Adkinson said his report isn’t about opposition to any proposals.

“I’m not actually opposed to anything,” the Walton Sheriff said. “What I’m trying to do is make sure that all our representatives, senators and the general public have the facts, so when they make public policy, it’s not based on opinion.”

Still, the Institute’s report makes reference to “advocates for eliminating minimum mandatory sentences,” and characterizes their view that drug offenders are generally non-violent as incorrect.

Bradley’s bill allowing judges to depart from mandatory minimums is awaiting its second reading on the Senate floor, which will likely happen Wednesday. Gain time bills in both chambers have yet to get a hearing.

Ryan Dailey is a reporter/producer for WFSU/Florida Public Radio. After graduating from Florida State University, Ryan went into print journalism working for the Tallahassee Democrat for five years. At the Democrat, he worked as a copy editor, general assignment and K-12 education reporter.