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Tallahassee reconsiders mandatory minimums

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

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(Except Scott Earle, who was prosecuted by Ishoy's office, could hardly be considered a big-time trafficker. "Because of the definitions in the bills, we're capturing drug addicts, [but] we're not really capturing those that are traffickers," says State Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff.)

Judge Speiser, however, takes issue with the fact that only a prosecutor can choose to forego the mandatory minimum charge. "Why should all that power be bestowed with the prosecutor?" Speiser says. "Why not extend it to the judge?"

Victor Crist, a former State Senator and the architect of Florida's 10-20-LIFE gun crime law that was passed in 1999 - which imposes a minimum sentence of 10 years for carrying a gun while committing a felony and 20 years to life for firing a gun while committing a felony - is still a believer in mandatory minimum sentences, but he also acknowledges their drawbacks. "It does take away judges' discretion, and that's unfortunate," he says. "When there's an epidemic of certain criminal activity, unfortunately, it becomes necessary to do a minimum mandatory."

Indeed, the crime rate has fallen significantly since the drug-trafficking statute was passed in 1979: That year, the state averaged 7,255 crimes per 100,000 residents; three decades later, the rate has declined to 4,398 crimes per 100,000 residents.

Still, Crist indicates that mandatory minimum sentences should not be set in stone. "We should always be revisiting our minimum mandatories to determine if they're still necessary or not," he says. "Society evolves. And so should our laws."

Regardless of where one stands on whether mandatory minimums are worthwhile, one thing is 
indisputable: It costs more money to keep somebody in prison for a longer period of time.

According to the Department of Corrections, the state of Florida spends an average of $19,469 per prisoner, per year, which means that roughly $2 billion was spent on prisoners between July 1, 2009, and June 30 of last year.

A new nationwide conservative movement called "Right on Crime" argues that long prison sentences are not worth the financial nor the social cost, and advocates instead for the elimination of some mandatory minimums for non-violent crimes, along with a host of other reforms to the criminal justice system both at the national and the state level. The movement, which launched its Florida campaign on March 22, includes some prominent backers, such as Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, William Bennett, formerly George H.W. Bush's "drug czar," and Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.

A local supporter of Right on Crime is Florida TaxWatch, a nonprofit watchdog group which proposes cost-cutting measures to the legislature in its annual Government Cost Savings Task Force report. This year's report suggested no less than 23 changes to the state's criminal and juvenile justice system, including the creation of post-adjudicatory and post-incarceration drug courts.

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