[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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  • by John on Mar 15, 2011 at 12:34 PM
    This bill removes the minimum jail time requirements. You can be jailed and tried as a DRUG TRAFFICKER (3 yrs and $50k minumun) for being caught with 3 pills of loratab not in the prescription bottle. Even if its a current prescription prescribed to you. 3 years of your life gone because you didn't want to carry the bottle they came in.
  • by Kevin aka Reality Location: Monticello on Mar 11, 2011 at 02:04 PM
    If you wanna rehab the SMALL TIME user ...fine. But do not tell me you wont be handing the local Cocaine Lord a sentence. Caught with 50 lbs ...a month in rehab? Pretty stupid.
  • by gravelyconcern Location: S.FL on Mar 11, 2011 at 09:03 AM
    The sentencing should be to a DRUG TREATMENT PROGRAM for no less than 12 months. Any shorter term is just a quick fix, and these guys will be out and right back on drugs and committing crimes.
  • by Danno Location: Tally on Mar 11, 2011 at 06:52 AM
    Studies have shown that for every dollar spent on drug intervention and education programs seven dollars are saved in law enforcement, judicial, and prison costs. The 'lock them up and throw away the key' approach is costing billions and not doing a thing to rehabilitate these offenders. Prisoners come out of the system as even more hardened criminals.
  • by Truthtracker Location: N. Florida on Mar 11, 2011 at 06:18 AM
    Bebe, What is the cost of the crimes they might commit to support their drug abuse/addiction? Property and/or lives? No different than re-entry programs. No matter how many programs you offer, they cannot fix a chemical imbalance in the brain. It's re-thinking personal choices. Everyone get's angry, not everyone kills because of it. Alot of people get aroused, but they don't rape. Alot of people are poor, but they don't rob or steal. Like it or not for some this world isn't ever going to be right. That place is prison and they should be run like a prison, not the new welfare system. No ones cost of living should be free.
  • by Bebe on Mar 11, 2011 at 05:23 AM
    Jail time cost taxpayers a lot more than treatment. As the state tightens we will see more crime, more hungry people who will do anything to eat and have electric. Treatment cost 1 dollar to every 9 dollars for housing feeding and clothing someone in jail.
  • by Truthtracker Location: N. Florida on Mar 11, 2011 at 04:08 AM
    Libertarian, for the record drug use and addiction are not mental health issue's per say. They are a personal weakness/flaw in ones character that cannot or will not change no matter how many treatment programs or money you throw into them until they (the addicted/drug abuser) are ready to change you/we are wasting our time. With drug abuse/addiction most times than not the individual has to reach what they feel to be the bottom before they can reach for the top. But it will never ever be until they are ready, not you not society or family, when they are ready. For the prison aspect of the issue, the Judicial system should be allowed more descreation, considering the totallity of circumstances reference each case.
  • by Anonymous on Mar 10, 2011 at 09:04 PM
    Anne, ok, then using your logic using alchohol should be illegal too as MANY more accidents result from alchohol intoxication than pot and all other drugs combined. The issue is we have a finite amount of money for the prison systems. Would you rather imprison a pot dealer or let a rapist-murderer get out early? Anonymous on Mar 10, 2011 at 07:22 PM Addiction is not an disease you can "catch" from another addict. You actually have to do enough of the drugs to become addicted. I certainly don't support drug use, but how long are we going to support the "war on drugs" and keep believing it is going to work when all evidence is that it is not helping? Correct if I am wrong, but drug use is not on the decline and "the war on drugs" has had more than enough time to work if it was going to.
  • by Anne Location: Tallahassee on Mar 10, 2011 at 08:20 PM
    Until you have a relative killed by a drunk or drugged driver (as I have) you cannot understand the immensity of this problem. In addition, my husband and I have known several men who have been in and out of jail, and rehab, who are "just addicts." They continue to re-offend by which I mean, they continue, even after rehab, even after jail, to get behind the wheel of a car either drunk or drugged. It is simply a miracle that they have not killed anyone yet. Actually, one of the men I am thinking of did kill someone: himself. He was driving while under the influence, fled police and was killed when he plowed his truck into a tree. Those libertarians (and others) who think pot should be legal and that this is a problem solved by treatment have never lost a loved one to an offender who was high. They are all "non-violent" until they actually kill somebody!
  • by Sally Location: Tally on Mar 10, 2011 at 07:47 PM
    @coke....ROTFLMAO...That was just too funny..Booger Sugar...At least the jails will then be places to put the murders and rapists. People with an addiction seriously need some mental health not JAIL.
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