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Tallahassee reconsiders mandatory minimums

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

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Inmates like Earle and Deane, consequently, have helped contribute to the explosive population growth in Florida's prisons: Since the state's drug-trafficking statute was enacted in 1979, the Florida per-capita incarceration rate has more than doubled. Since fiscal year 1994-1995 (the earliest year for which the Florida Department of Corrections can provide data), a total of 18,279 people have been admitted to prison on mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. The number sentenced per year has increased markedly as well. Between July 1, 1994, and June 30, 1995, 560 drug offenders began serving mandatory minimum sentences of some kind; by last fiscal year, that number had nearly quadrupled to 2,041. Corrections officials can't provide any solid data on how many people in state prison now are serving mandatory minimum sentences, though they say that as of June 30, 2010, 19,414 inmates - 19 percent of a total 102,232 prisoners - were serving time on "drug offenses." Regardless of whether those offenders are serving mandatory time or not, they've likely come in contact with the laws - after all, prosecutors have found the prospect of a mandatory minimum prison term to be an excellent tool in securing plea deals. 

Despite the fact that some judges complain that mandatory minimums reduce their ability to use discretion in sentencing, making them drones serving the system, the state's mandatory minimums for drug crimes remained unchallenged for more than 30 years. Recently though, the state's budget has cast a light on Florida's prison spending, which has gone up along with its jail population. At the beginning of this year's legislative session, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle submitted bills that would strike mandatory minimums from the state's drug-trafficking statute - one in the House and one in the Senate. It was the first time in decades that it looked like there was a chance that mandatory minimums could face a serious challenge in the legislature. On March 22, though, the House bill was stripped of language that would have abolished them; the Senate bill, still in committee as this issue goes to press, may face a similar fate by the time it gets to the floor of the legislature.

HB 917 is a forward-thinking criminal-justice bill: It would create a reentry program for nonviolent offenders that would involve substance-abuse treatment, adult basic education courses, vocational training and other rehabilitation programs, and the bill could cut a prisoner's sentence by up to half. In its original form, the bill also called for the elimination of all mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines for non-violent 
drug offenses. The bill's sponsor, State Rep. Ari Porth, D-Coral Springs, says that the state could spend far less money on corrections - and furthermore, get far better results - if non-violent drug offenders were rehabilitated, rather than incarcerated. Despite having evidence to support his theory, it's a proposal he didn't dare present until this year.

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