Will Florida Make the Shift to More Lenient Drug Sentencing?

On Sunday, August 18, 2013, the Miami Herald published an article entitled, "Push for leniency in drug sentencing has been a hard sell in Florida." The Herald began by explaining how U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's announcement that he was ordering prosecutors to stop charging lower-level drug offenders with "draconian minimum mandatory sentences" echoed the refrain from a bi-partisan coalition of activists who had previously tried and failed to persuade legislators to change the laws in Florida.

According to an analysis by the Florida Office of Program and Policy and Government Accountability, it costs the state an estimated $58,400 to incarcerate a drug offender for a mandatory three-year prison sentence, whereas the cost of treatment in a work release program is $19,130.

While Florida's crime rate is at a 41-year-low, the prison population continues to grow with non-violent, first-time offenders, many of whom were caught by undercover agents who were arresting them for trafficking small quantities of prescription drugs, according to the analysis.

Per the Florida Department of Corrections, taxpayers are paying an estimated $300 million a year to incarcerate people who have been convicted of drug offenses. With Holder's announcement earlier this month, there is to be a major shift in the federal sentencing policies, specifically addressing the long mandatory sentences that have flooded the nation's prisons for low-level drug crimes and diverted crime-fighting dollars that could be better invested elsewhere.

The Herald stated that if Holder's policies were implemented aggressively, they could mark one of the most significant changes in the way that the federal criminal justice system has handled drug cases since the 1980s when the government declared its war on drugs.

Holder has instructed federal prosecutors to cease charging many nonviolent drug offenders with offenses that carry mandatory minimum sentences. The next step will be to work with Congress in order to give judges a broader discretion with sentencing.

Already, several states such as Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio and Texas have endorsed similar laws supported by a wide range of interest groups. U.S. Senator Rand Paul, R-Kentucky said in a blog post that it "signaled a significant shift toward justice," while the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights called the move "game-changing."

The Herald questioned whether Holder's announcement will have any effect on Florida where a bi-partisan group of activists and legislators have been trying to shift the focus from incarceration to drug treatment and diversion.

Representative Katie Edwards had sponsored legislation last year that would have allowed judges to depart from having to hand down mandatory minimum sentences for trafficking illegal prescription drugs; however, while the proposal passed every House committee, it failed to come to a final vote after it was blocked in the Senate.

When drug convictions for prescription drugs has surged in the past ten years, and when convictions for trafficking have more than quadrupled between 2006 and 2012, most judges have little discretion and have no other choice but to sentence offenders to the mandatory three years in prison. According to the OPPAA report, three out of four drug offenders have little to no prior criminal history and just as many are suffering from substance abuse and addiction problems.

The Florida Department of Corrections reports that the cost of housing prisoners with mandatory minimum sentences is $97.5 million a year, and of those prisoners, only one third receives any type of treatment or re-entry skills. The data shows that three out of five drug offenders return on another drug offense.

While there are many proponents of reforming the system, Florida faces strong opposition from reluctant legislators who are afraid that Florida will be perceives as soft on crime; other opponents include the Florida Sheriff's Association, public prison officials and private prison lobbyists.

Senator Rob Bradley, R-Green Cove Springs, a former assistant state attorney agrees with changing the law because he believes it makes sense. He said the laws were written during the era of Miami Vice and drug cartels, "when the legislative mindset was focused on heroin and cocaine, not opiates," he said.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, chairman of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee is planning on pushing for sentencing reforms next session. In addition to making the laws more lenient for nonviolent drug offenders, he wants to increase the penalties for crimes against the elderly and children.

Barney Bishop, the director of the Alliance said, "If we can break the cycle so they don't come back, we will save hundreds of millions."

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