Criminal Sentencing, Prison Cost: Use Sense in Sentencing

Posted: April 16, 2011 in News and politics
Published: Tuesday, April 12, 2011 at 12:01 a.m.

Sentencing reform is gaining traction in the state Senate, a rare sign of progressive thinking in a legislative session awash in radical conservatism.

The sentencing reform, Senate Bill 1334, recently won unanimous approval from the Criminal Justice Committee. Similar legislation in the House has made it through two subcommittees. The future of these reforms is uncertain, however, because Gov. Rick Scott reportedly is not sympathetic to the cause.

Still, sponsors of the legislation deserve credit for trying to foster sensible changes to Florida’s criminal-sentencing rules, which contribute to high prison costs — now estimated at an annual $2.4 billion.

SB 1334 aims to curtail some of that expense by, among other things, moving certain nonviolent offenders into secure re-entry programs. These would, over the course of months, treat prisoners’ addiction problems, prepare them to rejoin society and possibly shorten their prison terms. The state already conducts some programs such as this but the bill would allow far more prisoners to utilize them.

It is “intended to divert nonviolent offenders from long periods of incarceration when a reduced period of incarceration followed by intensive substance-abuse treatment may have the same effect, rehabilitate the offender and reduce recidivism,” says an analysis of SB 1334 by the committee staff.


The measure, sponsored by state Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, would make another important change as well: The legislation would end “mandatory minimum” sentencing for certain nonviolent felony drug “trafficking” offenses.

It’s an aspect of the law that clearly needs reform. Under the current system, a person found to be in “knowing possession” of certain quantities of controlled substances is subject to a mandatory prison term of three, seven, 15 years and up, depending on the type of drug and the amount found. The judge has almost no discretion to consider mitigating factors in these cases.

Furthermore, the term trafficking can be misleading, because prosecutors do not have to prove that the offender intended to sell the drugs.

A 2009 report to the state Senate noted that unlawful possession of as few as seven tablets of Vicodin (a mixture of hydrocodone and Tylenol) can yield a mandatory three-year prison sentence.

Prescription drug-abuse deserves strong support, but a three-year prison term for possessing seven pills is extreme. There are better ways for such offenders to pay their debt to society, including fines, substance-abuse treatment and a lesser sentence.

Bogdanoff’s bill essentially would let judges take such issues into account, rather than locking them to an arbitrary mandated sentence.

“The mandatory minimums are not really serving the best interests of society from a financial standpoint or from a rehabilitation standpoint,” Bogdanoff said last month in a article by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale, “We’re basically incarcerating people who simply need drug counseling.”


In that same article, Chief Assistant State Attorney Chuck Morton of Broward County countered that mandatory minimums in trafficking cases can be useful because they provide leverage to get an arrested person’s cooperation, which can lead to more significant arrests. Also, he indicated, prosecutors often reduce trafficking charges when the offense is relatively small.

Morton’s points shouldn’t be overlooked. Legislative analysis indicates, however, that thousands of people are incarcerated under the mandatory minimums. Among other drawbacks, this means they are ineligible to have their sentence reduced for good behavior.

If lawmakers think SB 1334 goes too far, they should consider modifying portions. For example, they could require that the mandatory minimum would apply only in higher-level trafficking cases.

The Justice Committee staff analysis says, “Almost two-thirds of Florida inmates who enter prison for any crime also have a substance-abuse problem, and more than 80 percent of those who could benefit from treatment are released without it.”

That’s a recipe for recidivism, failure and higher incarceration rates.

It’s time to trade in that approach for the kind of positive change SB 1334 envisions.

This story appeared in print on page A8


Copyright © 2011 — All rights reserved. Restricted use only.

  1. rhonda says:

    carrying a concealed fiream by a felon convicted as a juvenile.25 years .Obvious discrimination,abuse of power and a waist of tax payers money.Columbus Rickey Ashley #992736.Only one violent crime as a juvenile.No pryor prison term.Really

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