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Tallahassee reconsiders mandatory minimums

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

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"It wasn't just my brother's conviction, it was the judge's inability to give him the sentence he thought was appropriate that really launched me on this crusade to ensure, or restore or protect individualized sentencing," Stewart says.

Therefore, FAMM, which boasts a membership of at least 20,000 inmates and their family members, opposes all mandatory minimum sentences as a matter of principle. "We want individuals to be judged on what they've done, in that particular case, and have all of the factors about their life be brought to bear on the final sentence," Stewart says.

Since its inception, FAMM has been instrumental in changing drug sentencing at both the federal and state levels. In 1994, it pressed successfully for the creation of a "safety valve" in the federal drug-sentencing statutes, which allowed drug offenders out of mandatory minimum sentences if they met five specific criteria. In 1998, thanks to pressure from FAMM, Michigan revoked its "650-lifer" law, which had mandated life in prison without parole for anyone found with 650 grams or more of cocaine or heroin. In 2007, FAMM successfully pressed for the "crack minus two" amendment to federal crack cocaine sentencing law, which made 3,804 prisoners eligible for early release the following year.

Last October, FAMM launched a campaign in Florida, which is only the second state to receive full-time attention (the other is Massachusetts) from the organization, which has an annual budget of $1,407,062 and spends $240,000 per year on lobbying. FAMM communications director Monica Pratt Raffanel says that Florida and Massachusetts were chosen because the mandatory minimum sentences in those states are "particularly egregious" and "ripe for reform."

 FAMM Florida's director, Greg Newburn, says he visited Tallahassee "at least" eight times in March, mostly lobbying for HB 917 and SB 1334. (Newburn is based in Gainesville; FAMM also employs a part-time lobbyist who lives in Tallahassee.) Since FAMM's Florida campaign began, Newburn has gotten plenty of media attention: The Ledger, The Gainesville Sun, and Broward-Palm Beach New Times, among other outlets, have quoted him. "If you look at a mandatory minimum sentence, you will uncover some injustice, somewhere, where someone who didn't deserve to be punished under that law has been," he says.

Mention of FAMM to those within the criminal justice system often spurs a larger discussion about mandatory minimums. Judges and public defenders are more apt to dislike them, while prosecutors are warmer to them.

"[W]e generally find that use of mandatory minimums can be helpful tools when presenting and prosecuting cases," writes Ron Ishoy of the Broward County State Attorney's office in an email to the Weekly. "Prosecutors have the authority to waive a mandatory trafficking sentence and they often do, especially with drug users and small-time traffickers."

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