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Tallahassee reconsiders mandatory minimums

Budget constraints have politicians questioning mandatory sentencing guidelines for nonviolent drug offenders

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Scott Earle, inmate #L00951 at the Sumter Correctional Institution in Bushnell, Fla., says he was "a mess" when he was first put behind bars in 1997. "I had pills in the top pocket of my shirt," Earle says. "The booking officer said: ‘What are you, crazy? Isn't that the thing you're in for?'"

Earle had long been addicted to Vicodin and other pain medications containing oxycodone; he was first introduced to them at the age of 16 when he broke his arm while playing hockey. One night in September 1995, at Gary's Sports Bar in Pompano Beach, a beautiful woman struck up a conversation with Earle. The bottle of Vicodin in his pocket somehow came up, and the woman, Lisa, asked if she could have a few pills for her aching back. Earle obliged, which marked the beginning of a three-month relationship - sometimes intimate - with Lisa. She frequently requested that Earle supply her with pain medications, eventually outpacing what he could supply from his personal stash, so he found a supplier through his brother's girlfriend. Before long Earle was a middleman, passing cash one way and pills the other way. He compensated himself by taking some pills off the top. She never complained when he came up short on pills, so the more she ordered, the more Earle took. In December, the hammer finally came down: Lisa met Earle in his car, where he placed a paper bag containing 365 Percosets (she had ordered 400) in her lap. That's when the squad cars moved in.

"When they arrested me that night, I was lit," he says. "I had probably about 15 [pills] in me."

Earle was slapped with eight different charges under Florida's drug-trafficking statute, which states "any person who knowingly sells, purchases, manufactures, delivers or brings into this state, or who is knowingly in actual or constructive possession of … any mixture containing" oxycodone and weighing at least 28 grams (roughly the weight of half a Snickers candy bar) must be sentenced to a minimum of 25 years in prison.

At that time, it was the same minimum sentence reserved for a conviction of first-degree murder. That fact was not lost on his sentencing judge, 17th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Mark Speiser: "So in your opinion the man deserves the same punishment of someone who goes and murders someone in cold blood and gets sentenced to a 25 [year] minimum mandatory sentence?" Speiser asked prosecuting attorney John Gallagher at Earle's hearing in 1998.

"We don't write the laws," Gallagher replied. "The laws are on the book."

Speiser had no choice but to sentence Earle, who had no prior convictions, to 25 years behind bars. "Even the officers I talked to in prison along the way would say: ‘Boy. You got screwed,'" Earle says.

Earle also says he isn't the only one. Since the "tough on crime" era of corrections began more than 30 years ago, mandatory minimum prison sentences have become increasingly popular across the nation; in Florida, they exist for crimes ranging from identity theft and driving under the influence to illegally harvesting blue crabs and selling horse meat without a proper label. The mandatory minimums with the biggest impact on the state's prisons, though, have been those couched within Florida's drug-trafficking statute. For example, only 14 grams of oxycodone suffices for a minimum 15-year sentence, which is what Earle's bunkmate, David Deane, is serving for 20 Vicodin pills.

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