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NEWS

Tallahassee reconsiders mandatory minimums

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

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 "We had a more hardened attitude about drugs," says Dick Batchelor, an Orlando businessman who served in the Florida House of Representatives between 1974 and 1982, and voted in favor of the law. "Hard drugs equals crime equals mandatory sentencing. That was kind of the law du jour back then."

Batchelor and his fellow legislators were, in some ways, just reacting to their environment. The drug trade was burgeoning in the late 1970s, and Miami was turning into a business hub for drug cartels. Only three months after the drug trafficking law was passed, for instance, a Colombian drug trafficker and his bodyguard were gunned down during the day in a Miami liquor store by two men wielding submachine guns. Known as the Dadeland Mall shooting, the event served as justification for the newly minted penalties. "If you mentioned the word ‘drugs' back then, you conjured all kinds of images dealing with crime," Batchelor says.

In addition, the "medical model" of corrections, which stressed "individualized treatment programs," including education, counseling and vocational training, had been employed at the federal level since the 1930s but had shown few results. Mandatory minimum sentences, lawmakers hoped, would not only address rampant crime, but also deter it. Proponents also argued that sentence uniformity would prevent judges who were considered "soft" on drug dealers and other criminals from being able to issue light sentences for crimes perceived as serious by lawmakers.

Dr. Roberto "Hugh" Potter, director of research at the University of Central Florida's Department of Criminal Justice, remembers the transition from a liberal to a conservative era of corrections clearly. In 1980, he was finishing up his doctorate in sociology at the University of Florida. One day, he was taken aside by Paul Cressey, an advisor on his academic study on juvenile diversion programs who also worked for the federal Bureau of Prisons.

"Hugh, I know you believe in rehabilitation," Potter recalls Cressey saying. "But I want you to drop the word. For the next 20 years, if you're to use the word ‘rehabilitation,' nobody will take you seriously."

Cressey's advice was more like a prophecy. As of 2009, Florida had the seventh highest per-capita incarceration rate in the nation - 559 inmates per 100,000 residents, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit health care policy research organization. (The per-capita incarceration rate in 1980, by contrast, was 200 inmates per 100,000 residents.). Opponents of mandatory minimums say the laws have been a significant reason for the increase.

When Scott Earle is asked to make a rough estimate of how many others at the Sumter Correctional Institution are serving mandatory drug time, he says: "Everyone to the left of me and to the right of me."

A challenge to mandatory minimum sentences may be new to the Florida legislature, but it's a familiar battle for Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., which has been campaigning against mandatory minimum sentencing since 1991, largely focusing on drug-sentencing laws. The organization was founded by Julie Stewart, formerly a director of public affairs for the Cato Institute. Stewart's brother was arrested in 1990 for growing marijuana and was later sentenced to five years in federal prison. What struck Stewart was how the judge openly lamented having to impose such a sentence on her brother.

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