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Mandatory sentences created a crisis


By Lester Abberger and Deborah Fleischaker

Publication Date: April 23, 2010, Tallahassee Democrat

Saddled with severe injuries from a car accident and struggling with multiple sclerosis, Richard Paey used high doses of prescription drugs to dull the pain. When his Florida physician refused to prescribe them, he turned to a former doctor in New Jersey who mailed him undated prescription painkillers for two years.

This supply was ultimately uncovered by the Pasco County sheriff's department, and Paey was charged with and convicted of drug trafficking. He was sentenced to a mandatory 25 years in prison, even though he was a first-time, nonviolent offender trying to cope with his pain. He served three years before Gov. Charlie Crist granted him a full pardon in 2007, stating that "we aim to right a wrong."

While Richard Paey was released from prison early, others are not so lucky. Scott Earle began using, then abusing, painkillers after an injury. He later became a middleman between an illegal seller and a friend he was trying to help who turned out to be an undercover officer.

Though Earle was a first time, nonviolent offender who made no money from arranging others' transactions, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison under Florida's mandatory minimum laws. For the past 11 years, Scott Earle has found little consolation in the fact that the judge who sentenced him declared, "This punishment does not fit the crime."

Florida's mandatory minimum sentences are among the harshest in the country, particularly those for "trafficking" prescription opiates such as Vicodin and Oxycodone.

For example, being convicted of illegally possessing more than 28 grams of prescription drugs (approximately the weight of half of a candy bar) requires a minimum sentence of 25 years in prison, regardless of extenuating circumstances.

While some people clearly should serve prison time for their drug crimes, too many people currently receive prison terms when they should instead be getting treatment. The costs of continuing along this path are staggering.

There were almost 100,000 people in Florida's prison system as of June 2008 — an almost 20- percent increase from five years earlier. Florida's prison system consumed 9.3 percent of the entire state budget in 2007. In 1987, for every dollar spent on higher education, the state of Florida spent 34 cents on corrections. Today, it's 66 cents.

Many lawmakers, both Republican and Democrat, are already interested in sentencing reform. The pressure that corrections costs are placing on the budget has attracted new faces to the fight.

Florida TaxWatch issued a report on how the Florida government can save money. Included in its recommendations were a host of criminal justice reforms that would expand alternatives to incarceration, protect public safety, and save the state millions of dollars.

And just last month, the Collins Center for Public Policy, working with the state's business community, issued "Smart Justice," with recommendations for fixing Florida's bloated and unfair criminal justice system. Among the recommendations? Implement cost-saving reforms, including diverting nonviolent offenders from prison, revising penalties for low- level drug offenders, and, yes, revisiting mandatory minimums. Florida would be wise to heed these suggestions.

Why are mandatory minimums in their sights? Florida's prison population is growing faster than that of any other state, and if current prison population growth continues unabated, Florida will need to build as many as 19 new prisons over the next five years. It costs an average of $20,100 a year to house a state prisoner in Florida. The 5,859 people serving mandatory minimum drug sentences in Florida prisons cost our taxpayers more than $117 million each year. The state can and should do better.

In short, Florida is going to have to address its corrections crisis. Any comprehensive solution must include mandatory minimum reform as a front- end, permanent fix that will save taxpayer dollars and improve the administration of justice without compromising public safety.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Lester Abberger of Tallahassee is on the national board of Horizon Communities in Prisons. Contact him at lesterabberger@nettally.com.

Deborah Fleischaker of Washington, D.C., is director of state legislative affairs for Families Against Mandatory Minimums. Contact her at dfleischaker@famm.org.

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