Florida Lawmakers: Minimum Mandatory Criminal Sentences “A Waste”

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Minimum mandatory sentences in Florida may be on their way out. That’s if the conclusions of the Florida Senate Criminal Justice Committee are taken to heart by the rest of the state legislature. prison

Lawmakers concluded after close examination of tough-on-crime-era policies that not only are minimum mandatory sentences ineffective, they are costing taxpayers enormous amounts of money – often for very little return. On top of that, the cost to communities, families and individuals, who are serving decades behind bars for non-violent offenses, is astronomical.

Take for example the 25-year prison term of one inmate at a correctional facility in Homestead. In 2002, she was arrested for selling 35 pills. She got $300 out of the deal. She was arrested and later convicted for drug trafficking. Minimum mandatory sentencing guidelines meant the judge had no discretion: She would have to serve 25 years. Housing her in prison costs taxpayers more than $18,000 annually. By the time her sentence is over and she is released in 2023, it will have cost taxpayers nearly $452,000.

Cases like this are why the Florida Senate committee recently voted unanimously in favor of SB 290. It’s a measure that proposes eliminating minimum mandatory sentencing guidelines for non-violent offenses.

The committee’s decision is promising, particularly because it marks a significant pivot from the decades of “tough on crime” policy that got us into this mess in the first place. Prisons are overcrowded. Court systems are jammed. For all the division currently swirling in the political arena, both liberals and conservatives generally agree that minimum mandatory sentences aren’t serving anyone. We have a class of non-violent “lifers” who are costing the state billions, and it’s not making us any safer.

SB 290 is referred to as the “prison diversion bill.” Enacting this measure, proponents argue, would save the state more than $130 million in costs and result in 1,000 fewer people in the state penal system annually.

Specifically, our criminal defense lawyers in Miami understand this measure would allow state judges to have discretion in nearly 120 crimes that currently have minimum mandatory guidelines. However, these provisions would still exclude discretion for drug trafficking. The measure would also restore the Florida Sentencing Commission, which was halted in 1997 after 15 years. The commission would be limited to ascertaining the severity ranking that adds points to an offender’s record on the basis of certain offenses.

Those who commit violent crimes would not be eligible for judicial discretion in sentencing.

In addition to the minimum mandatory sentencing bill, the committee also unanimously passed three other measures:

A bill requiring police to administer blind lineups, barring investigators conducting the lineup as well as witnesses from being informed whether the suspect is present.
A bill requiring police to record full interrogations of felony suspects as a means to curb instances of confessions that are false or coerced.
A bill requiring the state to compensate victims of wrongful incarceration.
It’s not clear what the odds are of these measures gaining the full support of the legislature, but the fact this bipartisan committee passed them unanimously means the odds are promising. A number of similar bills have also been filed in the Florida House.

Of course, even if SB 290 passed, it wouldn’t mean defendants would have any less need for a good defense lawyer. That’s because maximum penalties for many of the crimes involved will remain unchanged. The major difference is that judge’s will have discretion on how much time to impose. That makes having an experienced criminal lawyer all the more imperative.

Contact the Miami criminal defense lawyers at Jacobs Keeley at (305) 358-7991 for a free consultation on your pending criminal matter.