Harsh Sentencing Process for Some Abusers Deserves Overhaul

Post Date: April 8, 2014

(Miami Herald Editorial) — When crime spiked in the 1970s and outraged Americans demanded action, zero tolerance drug laws were born.

The result has been a nation of crowded prisons — with taxpayers footing the bill and incarcerated black and Hispanic defendants paying the heaviest price.

Today, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle rarely see eye to eye on anything, but on this issue they do: The nation’s state and federal maximum criminal sentencing guidelines need reform. We agree the process needs an overhaul.

Our long war on drugs has now soured, unjustly punishing some Americans serving stiff sentences for non-violent drug offenses.

Even the nation’s top prosecutor, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, supports the idea of lowering federal sentences for non-violent drug crimes, potentially reducing prison time by an average of a year.

Mr. Holder is endorsing efforts by the U.S. Sentencing Commission to revise the guidelines used by judges in calculating sentences for defendants in federal court. Holder makes it clear tough sentences should remain for violent felons and career criminals and those who use weapons when committing drug crimes.

In Florida, two bills in the Legislature address the issue and, if they become law, will take a small but significant step toward readjusting drug-use sentences. We believe they are a good start to the bigger work that needs to be done. Possession of seven hydrocodone painkillers without a valid prescription can land a person in a state prison with a mandatory three-year sentence. Period. There is no distinction between drug user and drug dealer.

On Wednesday in the Florida House, a bill co-sponsored by Broward State Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, will be heard on the floor. We strongly support its passage. HB99 will reduce sentences for the possession of highly addictive painkillers oxycodone and hydrocodone, the prescription meds that fueled the pill-mill craze in Broward in 2009 and 2010. A sister bill sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, passed in the Senate.

Ms. Edwards should be commended for championing this cause. She says the ravages of mandatory sentences — and not rehabilitation — for those addicted have been deep. Women have been hardest hit. There are 2,000 of them in Florida’s prison system serving mandatory sentences for drug use. Young drug users who turn to their parents’ medicine chest for a high also get snared.

We need to stop giving harsh prison sentences for people grappling with drug use and addiction. What hypocrisy, now that some states are decriminalizing marijuana.

Together, HB 99 and SB 360 would allow nonviolent, first-time offenders caught with small amounts to be shipped off to drug court rather than prison. It is a more humane and cost-effective way to deal with the offenders.

If the bills become law, it would take three times as many hydrocodone pills — 22 rather than seven — to trigger a three-year sentence for defendants. And what used to lead to a 25-year sentence would result in seven years.

The change dealing with this drug alone could save the state nearly $50 million over five years by sending nearly 500 fewer people to prison, a state report shows. Currently, Florida houses 100,566 inmates. That’s reason enough to push this bill along. Read more