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Tallahassee reconsiders mandatory minimums

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

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"I think the fact that our state has a multi-billion dollar budget deficit is making this legislation, [which] wouldn't have been able to be talked about several years ago, something that's actually viable," he says. The argument was shot down by Florida's Speaker of the House, Dean Cannon, who appoints the committees that decide whether a bill gets to live or die. (In a March 21 budget allocation memo to House committee leaders, Cannon wrote: "The House budget will not revise adult sentencing policies, change inmate release schedules, or take any action that jeopardizes the long-term safety of the public to save money in the current fiscal year.") But the fact that the issue has been raised at all suggests a shifting mentality in Tallahassee regarding crime and punishment - even if it is one that's being driven primarily by fiscal necessity, rather than concern about criminal-justice policy.

With a budget of $2.4 billion, 
the Department of Corrections is the state's largest agency; consequently, it has earned a prominent place on Gov. Scott's chopping block (the governor's office did not reply to requests for comment on this story). Shortly after he was elected, Scott appointed a "Law and Order Transition Team" that recommended an overhaul of the state's mandatory minimum laws and in his budget proposal, he suggested cutting nearly 1,700 jobs from the Department of Corrections, which he says would save the state more than $80 million.

Florida's trend toward incarceration began in 1979, with the passage of the state's drug-trafficking statute, which delineates punishments for various drug crimes. For each different drug, or family of drugs, the law created a three-tiered system of mandatory minimum sentencing rules. Possession of a lesser amount of a drug (and what is considered a small amount differs for different drug classes) would yield sentences of three years; possession of a moderate amount would yield either a five- or 10-year sentence and a larger quantity would yield either a 15- or 25-year sentence. Fines are also mandatory - one conviction, depending on the drug and the amount of it, could mean anywhere from $25,000 to $500,000 in fines for the perpetrator, as well. (Because Scott Earle was convicted on multiple counts of trafficking, he owes the state $2.15 million.)

The amount of prison time tied to a particular drug, and the amount possessed, varies widely: Being caught with 1,999 pounds of marijuana in Florida results in three years in prison and a $25,000 fine; being caught with 28 grams of heroin is enough for 25 years behind bars and a half-million dollar fine.

When the original statute - which focused only on marijuana, cocaine and opium - was put to vote in the state Senate on April 5, 1979, it was approved 38-2. It was passed to the House, and the following day, all 116 representatives present voted for the bill. Mandatory minimum sentences were added for PCP and Quaaludes in 1980; methamphetamine in 1989; hydrocodone and oxycodone in 1995; roofies in 1997; GHB, MDMA and ecstasy in 2000; and LSD in 2001.

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