TALLAHASSEE — Women, Hispanics and residents from a handful of counties were given lengthy prison sentences for trafficking prescription painkillers at higher rates than other Floridians, according to an analysis by criminal justice researchers.
The analysis examined an estimated 935 prison inmates who are serving mandatory sentences of 15 and 25 years that are no longer in state law because the Florida Legislature has since eased the penalties for their crimes. If these inmates committed the same crimes today, many would receive a fraction of their current sentences.
The findings by the Project on Accountable Justice, a nonpartisan group housed at Florida State University, are expected to be published later this month.
The group of prisoners examined in the report was the focus of a November Times/Herald investigation, which told the story of Jomari DeLeon, a mother of three serving 15 years for her first-time drug offense despite the fact that the same crime would now qualify for about three years.
The inmates like DeLeon were twice as likely to be female compared to the average Florida prisoner, and more likely to be Hispanic, according to the Project on Accountable Justice, which also includes academics from St. Petersburg College and Tallahassee Community College.
National research has found that women in state prisons are more likely than men to be serving time for drug offenses. Since 1978, the number of women in state prisons nationwide has grown by more than 800 percent — double the pace of men, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
Researchers have cited the war on drugs as a driver of that explosion.
“One in 4 women ... experienced sexual or domestic violence prior to incarceration. These are issues that lead to self-medicating,” said Carla Laroche, a Florida State University professor who teaches courses on gender and the justice system. “Focusing on the trauma piece is not an excuse but it is an explanation for the reasons why people might go to drugs in the first place.”
Laroche also noted that prescription opioid addiction was typically associated with white offenders, but this data showing Hispanic over-representation may indicate that people of color were more affected than previously thought.
In addition to the demographic breakdown, the research also showed that some counties, all with fewer than 350,000 residents, handed down these lengthy minimum sentences at much higher rates than other, more populous counties.
Osceola County had far and away both the highest rate and raw number, with an estimated 97 people currently serving these outdated sentences who had been convicted there. That’s about 10 percent of the total group of inmates.
Deborrah Brodsky, director of the Project on Accountable Justice, said this unequal distribution shows why Florida needs better oversight of its criminal justice system to determine whether the regional discrepancies are due to differences in enforcement or other factors, like shortages of addiction services.
“We know we’re sending more folks to prison from certain places. So these are the places we should look to reinvest in things that help keep people better,” Brodsky said.
Scott Richardson, one of DeLeon’s lawyers who has worked as a defense attorney in central Florida since 1989, said he wasn’t surprised to learn that Osceola, where DeLeon was convicted, ranked so high.
He had a different suspicion about Osceola’s high number of drug sentences, which he said stems from local law enforcement’s willingness to bring cases that have iffy evidence.
“If I send enough cases through the system ... good and bad, eventually you’re going to have a higher percentage of those that stick,” he said. Richardson pointed to DeLeon’s case as an example. Her drug deal was repeatedly suggested by a man who was a confidential informant to police.
Richardson argued at trial that DeLeon, who had no criminal history beyond traffic violations, would not have committed the crime had it not been for the insistence of the informant. But the jury found her guilty anyway.
State Attorney Aramis Ayala is “very mindful of the incarceration rates for drug crimes,” said Trei Johnson, spokeswoman for the State Attorney’s office for the Ninth Circuit, which covers Osceola and Orange counties. Johnson pointed to a program created last year which allows people facing certain low-level drug charges to avoid doing time if they complete a course on substance abuse, do community service and avoid future arrests.
Johnson added that prosecutors have "no control over who is arrested, why they were arrested, or how aggressive law enforcement is in making those arrests."
The Osceola County Sheriff's Office did not respond to calls and emails, made repeatedly over several weeks, seeking comment.
Other counties with high rates of these types of convictions were Baker, Putnam, Okeechobee and Escambia. Of counties with more than 1 million people, Hillsborough ranked highest, while Miami-Dade was near the very bottom.
Although it’s Florida’s most populous county, just 36 inmates from Miami-Dade are currently serving outdated drug sentences.
State Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Democrat from North Miami Beach and a former prosecutor, said Miami approaches low-level drug crimes differently, opting to pursue less aggressive sentences because of the “sheer volume” of major drug crimes they have in that area.
"Miami-Dade was like, 'Next, move along,'" he said. "When guys get arrested they don't want to go to Broward. They're like, 'Take me to Dade.'"
But these particular drug sentences are hardly the only example of justice administered differently across Florida. Over the years, researchers have found stark county-by-county differences in juvenile arrest rates, the severity of crimes that result in prison time and whether drug crimes will lead to treatment or incarceration, for example.
"We see these types of trends, especially rural and non-urban centers imposing longer sentences, for drug crimes and low-level crimes," said Leonard Engel, director of policy and campaigns for the Crime and Justice Institute, a national nonpartisan group.
"You have state laws and you expect equal application," he added, saying the regional differences in the way the law is applied is "especially profound in Florida" because of its size and diversity. That's caused by the fact that there are fewer addiction treatment options in rural areas, but also differences in mindset.
Officials "from north Florida, they have a very different perspective on crime and punishment than ... their colleagues in Orange County or Miami-Dade or Hillsborough."
Florida voters approved a ballot measure in 2018, Amendment 11, which granted the Legislature new authority to apply current sentencing laws to old cases. But so far, they have taken no action to do so.
For the 2020 session, which starts Tuesday, two bipartisan bills — one each in the House and Senate — have been filed that would allow judges to re-sentence those inmates. But a leading House Republican recently said he doesn’t support the idea.
Pizzo said he supports applying Amendment 11 to previous drug cases, because some old sentencing laws are “so far removed from what we would all legislate to be reasonable today.”
“If you did some really evil s--t that’s terrorized vulnerable people, you should be punished,” he said. “But there are (laws) that ... exacerbated disparities based on race and economics that still exist today.”