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Romano: Wasting money and lives in Florida with foolish sentencing laws

Florida State Prison in Raiford.
Florida State Prison in Raiford.
Published Nov. 11, 2017

Take a bow, Florida.

When it comes to drug sentencing laws, the experts say you are tougher than most. You lock up more people, and you keep them behind bars longer than just about any other state.

You also waste more taxpayer money, create more career criminals and fail to treat more addicts than most other states, too.

But those are just details, right?

Well, thankfully, a pair of legislators from Tampa Bay have decided that you can still be tough on crime while also being smart on crime. Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, have filed separate bills (SB 694 and HB 481) known as "safety valve'' laws that would give judges more discretion in minor drug cases under certain conditions.

"Everywhere in the South, and all over the country, states are either repealing mandatory minimum sentences or passing safety valve laws,'' said Greg Newburn, director of state policy for Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "It's become tremendously, increasingly indefensible in Florida. And I use that word for a reason. There is literally no defense for it.''

The stories are everywhere.

A 40-year-old woman in Sunrise who was contacted by a police informant, and agreed to sell 35 Lorcet pills. She had no prior arrests; she was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

A 53-year-old Bradenton native who became addicted to painkillers after cancer surgery was caught forging a prescription; he was sentenced to 15 years.

A 41-year-old man had a six-pack of beer and a fistful of his mother's Vicodin in an Orlando park where he intended to commit suicide; he was arrested, charged with trafficking and sentenced to 15 years.

The common thread in all of these cases is mandatory minimum drug sentence laws. When the amount of pills exceeds a certain weight, and a prosecutor decides to seek a trafficking charge, a judge has absolutely no discretion. Extenuating circumstances don't matter; the sentence is locked in.

"For the past 20 years, we've been doing law enforcement by sound byte,'' said Brandes. "Three strikes and you're out. 10-20-Life. The 85 percent (minimum sentence served) rule. Mandatory minimums. They all sound great, but they're horrible public policy. They don't look at the individual facts of a case.

"We're treating drug mules like they're drug kingpins. That's a problem.''

The one-size-fits-all approach has not worked. Not even remotely.

Legislators can point to a drop in crime statistics, but crime is down across the nation. And other states have not been nearly as ham-handed as Florida.

During this supposedly get-tough era, Florida has seen an explosion in drug use. First with pill mills, and now with heroin and fentanyl. Instead of recognizing the solution hasn't worked, the state doubled down by passing another mandatory minimum law on fentanyl earlier this year.

While the cost in human life has been devastating, the cost to taxpayers has also been significant. A report earlier this year by the Reason Foundation — a libertarian think tank — discovered that of the 2,300 inmates serving time for hydrocodone or oxycodone trafficking, nearly 1,500 had never previously been incarcerated. That suggests many were addicts who committed crimes, as opposed to drug dealers plying their trade.

The report points out that keeping these addicts in prison for mandatory terms is costing the state tens of millions of dollars a year. And that doesn't take into account what a prison term does to their employment chances upon release.

"A number of states are realizing that locking these type of people up is not producing the best outcome,'' said Lauren Krisai, the author of the Reason report. "It's not the best use of prison space, it's not the best use of tax dollars. Even conservative states like Texas are enacting sentencing reforms, and the result is they're closing prisons.''

The safety valve bills being proposed by Brandes and Diamond are not perfect solutions. They do not actually eliminate mandatory minimum sentences.

Instead, they allow a judge to deviate from the sentence if there are mitigating circumstances, such as no violence or no evidence of a criminal conspiracy. In Diamond's bill, there is also a requirement of no previous arrests. Brandes said it's the first step in what will hopefully be a series of reforms.

It's not the first time Florida has tried to tackle the issue. It has come up in several legislative sessions, including earlier this year with a bill by Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, that stalled in the Senate.

"We've seen the past decade or two, if we don't get people into treatment, all we're doing is warehousing them,'' Rouson said. "We put them on the shelf for a few years, and they get out and do the same thing. Let's get the best results possible. Let's get treatment, and fix this problem.''