Friday, October 26, 2012

Right on Crime: Reform Florida's Mandatory Minimum Sentences

The conservative criminal justice reform superheroes over at Right on Crime point out that drug courts in Florida have worked remarkably well at reducing the recidivism rate among participants. As they note, “The felony recidivism rate for drug court participants is 12 percent, compared to the control group’s rate of 40 percent.”

They also note that, despite the apparent success of drug courts, "Florida’s prison population has grown at a rate of 11.4 times between 1990 and 2009, while its population in general increased only 2.7 times,” and add that one of the reasons for that shocking statistic is Florida’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which they note are “some of the strictest mandatory minimum laws in the country.”

They’re right.

As the post notes, in 2010, the Florida Department of Corrections was “housing 5,135 inmates serving mandatory drug sentences. ... At a cost of $20,108 per year to keep an inmate in prison, mandatory drug sentences were costing Florida almost $103 million.” A recent report by Florida TaxWatch makes similar findings, and adds that 75% of the offenders serving mandatory sentences for drug offenses in Florida have no prior prison record.

What accounts for the apparent tension between the success of Florida’s drug courts and our insane incarceration rates? One reason is that offenders convicted of “drug trafficking” are ineligible for drug courts. That might make sense in the case of kingpins manufacturing and distributing massive amounts of illegal drugs for profit. However, because of the indefensible way Florida defines “trafficking” (e.g., possession of .14 ounces of prescription painkillers is "trafficking") far too often those convicted of “trafficking” are just addicts who happen to get caught. 

For instance, this report by Florida’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability shows that, of the 1,200 offenders admitted to prison for opioid trafficking in FY 2010-2011, half were arrested for possessing or selling fewer than 30 pills. 25% were arrested for possessing or selling 15 or fewer pills. 65% were identified as having a substance abuse problem, and were “at low risk for recidivism.” Nonetheless, they all face mandatory prison sentences at tremendous cost to taxpayers and little to no corresponding public safety benefit. 

Florida already has many tools it could use in order to implement more effective, efficient, and affordable alternatives to incarceration, particularly for those addicted to drugs. Drug courts have worked, and continue to work in Florida. It is time for policy-makers in Florida to do their part in reforming the mandatory minimum-sentencing laws that are costing taxpayers millions of dollars and no longer serving their intended purpose.
Makes sense to me.

~ Greg Newburn, FAMM Florida Project Director