Big Shift in Legislature: Moves to Scale Back Tough-on-Crime Measures

Post Date: March 22, 2014

(Palm Beach Post) — In twin moves, Florida lawmakers are revisiting mandatory prison terms for some firearm and drug offenses, a sharp departure from years of pushing tough-on-crime measures.

Bills increasing the number of pills needed to trigger an automatic prison term have flown through House and Senate committees. A bill modifying Florida’s 10-20-Life law, which requires lengthy stints behind bars for certain gun-related crimes, appears headed for legislative approval. Under the bill, people who fire warning shots would not necessarily face prison time.

Nothing has landed on the governor’s desk yet. But even a willingness to rethink the laws represents a sea change from the 1990s-era initiatives that have swelled state prisons, bloated the corrections budget and at one point earned Florida a dubious reputation as the most punitive state in America.

“We are locking up thousands of people for a very long time, and I think legislators on both sides of the aisle are looking for smarter, more efficient ways” to deal with crime and punishment, said Greg Newburn, Florida Project Director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a national advocacy group.

Mandatory sentences have robbed judges of common-sense discretion in meting out punishment, said state Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth. “This dogmatic approach we have had to sentencing in the last couple of decades is hopefully going to be a thing of the past,” he said.

“We have judges for a reason, and to go with a one-size-fits-all approach really makes no sense at all.”

Drugs and money

Bottom line concerns are driving some of the votes. In Florida, the Department of Corrections budget tops $2.2 billion, up 37 percent from roughly $1.6 billion in 2001. And although crime is at a 42-year low, the state prison population hasn’t experienced a dramatic drop, partly because mandatory sentences put more inmates behind bars and keep them there longer.

For instance, between 1990 and 2009, the average sentence length for a Florida drug offense grew by 194 percent, a study by the nonprofit Pew Center on the States found, the steepest increase of any state. It has a correspondingly steep price tag. Florida TaxWatch, the Tallahassee think tank, found that imprisoning drug offenders cost the state more than $100 million in one year alone.

And in Florida, surprisingly small numbers of drugs can trigger prison time.

A conviction for illegally possessing seven tablets of hydrocodone, one of the most widely prescribed drugs in America, can trigger a mandatory prison sentence of at least three years — not for possession, but for trafficking.

That would change under a pair of similar bills that have won near-unanimous approval from House and Senate committees.

Both bills retain minimum mandatory sentences for possessing hydrocodone and oxycodone without a prescription. But the number of pills needed to trigger an automatic prison sentence is raised and some of the sentences are lowered.

For example, it would take 22 10-milligram hydrocodone tablets, not seven, to trigger a trafficking charge and a mandatory three years behind bars if convicted. It would take 44 of the pills to trigger a seven-year sentence.

Current law is much harsher. In 2009, central Florida police found Todd Hannigan with 31 tablets of his mother’s Vicodin, part of a botched suicide attempt. That was enough for a trafficking charge and 15-year prison sentence.

An appeals court ruling concluded that if Hannigan had been attempting suicide, sending him to prison was “a gross injustice.” But legislators, not judges, write sentencing laws, they said. Hannigan’s prison term was upheld.

No one is suggesting that prison isn’t the right place for certain offenders, said Deborrah Brodsky, director of Florida State University’s Project on Accountable Justice. But, she said of many drug offenders, “Each day of incarceration is a day they are on the citizens’ tab, not supporting their families, and are not contributing to the productivity of our state.”

Decades behind bars

Florida lawmakers also are revisiting 10-20-Life, one of the state’s best known — and toughest — minimum mandatory sentencing laws.

Passed in the late 1990s, 10-20-Life requires judges to hand down sentences of a decade or more for certain crimes involving a gun. Just holding a gun during those crimes can trigger 10 years behind bars. The popular law is credited with putting away dangerous felons.

But it also has put low-level and first-time offenders behind bars, too.

In 2012, a north Florida judge was forced to send Marissa Alexander to prison for 20 years for firing a warning shot.

The mother of three said she was warding off her estranged husband’s threatening advances. He initially admitted to abuse. “I got five baby mamas and I put my hands on every last one of them except one,” he said in a deposition. “They had to walk on eggshells around me.”

On the day of the shooting, he told lawyers, Alexander never actually pointed the gun at him.

“I honestly think she just didn’t want me to put my hands on her anymore so she did what she feel like she had to do to make sure she didn’t get hurt,” he said under oath. “You know, she did what she had to do.”

No one was injured. But her husband changed his story and Alexander was found guilty of aggravated assault. Because the crime involved shooting a gun, two decades behind bars was mandatory.

The new legislation would give judges the option of not imposing 10-20-Life’s automatic prison sentences when someone fires a warning shot. Read more