[UPDATE] Stopping "One Size Fits All" Drug Sentences

By: Julie Montanaro; Margie Menzel, The News Service of Florida Email
By: Julie Montanaro; Margie Menzel, The News Service of Florida Email

March 10, 2011 by Julie Montanaro

A new proposal would scrap all minimum mandatory sentences for those accused of non-violent drug offenses.

Two Florida lawmakers, Republican Ellyn Bogdanoff of Fort Lauderdale and Democrat Ari Porth of Coral Springs, touted the bill today as a way to save millions and shift the sunshine state's focus from doing time to getting treatment.

Too many folks snared by the current mandatory prison sentences are addicts, they say, not criminals.

"The courtroom where all of the information and evidence is being presented is the best place for it to be determined what kind of treatment that individual needs or what kind of punishment that individual needs," Senator Ellyn Bogdanoff said.

"There are short term savings of we think millions of dollars, intermediate tens of millions, and maybe after several years, three to four years after we get this going, we believe hundreds of millions of dollars," said Dominic Calabro of Florida Taxwatch

Yet critics say these minimum mandatory sentences target drug traffickers and those sentences vary from 3 years to life based on the amount of drugs in question.

The Florida Sheriff's Association says weakening the minimum mandatory sentences sends the wrong message.

"These minimum mandatory sentences are critical because they are a significant deterrent. We must send a clear message to Floridians: Drug trafficking will not be tolerated. Any weakening or diminishing of the mandatory minimum sentencing sends the wrong message," said Seminole County Sheriff Donald Eslinger, who chairs the FSA's legislative committee.

Barbara Gilbertson, Executive Director of Turnabout in Tallahassee, says substance abuse treatment may be more effective than incarceration in many cases, but she's skeptical that there would be adequate funding for that.

"If you do away with punishment, you've got to have something else for them," she said.


Margie Menzel, The News Service of Florida -- THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, March 10, 2011 --

With the economic recession as the “mother of invention,” a pair of lawmakers from opposite parties are sponsoring a measure that would end mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders.

The bills, SB 1334, sponsored by Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, and HB 917, by Rep. Ari Porth, D-Coral Springs, would also provide alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders. Judges would have more discretion when deciding sentences on a case-by-case basis, with the option of sending offenders to rehab.

“In our minimum-mandatory sentences, we capture a lot of people that are not necessarily criminals but addicts," said Bogdanoff. "We need to focus our rehabilitation for those people who are not necessarily suffering from a life of crime but from a life of addiction."

She also said many addicts have mental health issues causing them to self-medicate, and that with treatment, they can be helped.

The measure is backed by a coalition of groups that includes Florida TaxWatch, the Pew Center on the States, and Right on Crime for Inmate Sentencing Legislation. Dominic Calabro, president and CEO of TaxWatch, said the measure could save the state millions of dollars – an argument likely to resonate with lawmakers grappling with the state’s $3.6 billion budget shortfall.

“There’s opportunity here because of the economy,” said Calabro. “Now is the time for reform.”

Florida’s prison population tops 101,000 – a five-fold increase over the last 30 years. According to Calabro, in 1980, the state spent less than $170 million dollars a year on the Department of Corrections, but the current DOC budget is $2.4 billion – “a fourteen-fold increase.”

Calabro also said that almost 60 percent of arrests in Florida are for crimes committed either under the influence of drugs and alcohol or in order to obtain them. With fully one-third of ex-felons committing a new offense and returning to prison within five years, he said, treating addicts can transform them into law-abiding, taxpaying citizens.

The measure also calls for seeing that when inmates are released, they’ve obtained job training and a high school diploma.

“If they’re not properly managed and treated, they’re going to come out of prison to a life of crime,” he said. “We have inadvertently created some of our prisons to be crime colleges.”

Allison DeFoor, vice chair of TaxWatch’s Center for Smart Justice, praised the proposal for its statistical basis. “The common thread is an increasing desire to see the evidence, to make it data-driven,” he said.

Just a few years ago, nobody on the right talked about getting softer on crime as a legitimate public policy option – though conservatives often say they’re not really proposing to get softer, just smarter.

But increasingly, conservative organizations are looking at the numbers of people in prison and looking at the problem differently.l

Bogdanoff and Calabro agreed that the political climate has changed since last November’s election, making it riper for reform.

"It's amazing what an e-mail from a group supported by Newt Gingrich will do in a conservative Legislature," said Bogdanoff about conservatives new interest in reforming sentencing laws that for more than a decade had been going the other direction in Florida’s conservative Legislature.

But Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said that while he appreciates the intent behind the proposal, he can’t support it.

“I believe what we have in place today, with the mandatory minimum sentencing, with the sentencing guidelines, with the laws we’ve put in place over the years, is one of the reasons we’ve seen a reduction in crime here in Florida,” said Fasano.

He also praised the effort to reduce the cost of Florida’s criminal justice system, but said a better approach is helping young people who get in trouble with the law.

“In (the Department of Juvenile Justice), for instance, we’re going to be looking into a program to try to get some of those young people into early prevention programs,” Fasano said, “and get to them early before they become that repeat offender and all of a sudden, they’re a felony and they’re in jail for many years.”

Bogdanoff dismissed the idea that her proposal would undermine good criminal justice.

“There are those critics who say, ‘Aren’t you getting weak on crime?’” she said. “We can actually be tough on crime without being tough on justice…If we don’t do something to fix this problem, we’re going to be spending a lot more on criminal justice than we ever imagined.”

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