According to an investigation by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the war on drugs is disproportionately affecting Florida’s citizens of color. For example, African-Americans convicted of drug offenses involving mandatory minimum sentences spend 39 percent more time behind bars than others with similar criminal profiles. African-Americans convicted of drug crimes in churches, parks, public housing, and other drug-free zones face sentences nearly twice as long as those given to white offenders.
To address these disparities, some Florida lawmakers are introducing sentencing reform for drug crime cases. One proposed bill would give judges the discretion to depart from mandatory minimum sentences in low-level trafficking cases. Another bill seeks to improve sentencing practices by gathering and analyzing sentencing data of individual judges. The bill on mandatory minimums is drawing bipartisan support, but the proposal to keep tabs on judges has met stiff opposition.
Florida Legislature Considers Moving Away from Mandatory Minimums in Some Drug Cases
Florida law has many mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. If you get convicted of possessing or selling a certain amount of a specific drug, it often triggers a mandatory minimum sentence. For now, judges have no choice but to follow the law and hand down the sentence on the books.
Senate Bill 694 would allow judges to impose sentences that are shorter than the statutory mandatory minimums for some drug trafficking offenses. The bill, authored by Senator Jeff Brandes (R – St. Petersberg), would amend the Florida drug trafficking statute to exempt judges form applying mandatory minimums when the defendant did not:
- Engage in a “continuing criminal enterprise,” such as being a gang member
- Use a weapon or threaten violence while committing the offense
- Cause death or a serious injury
Instead of facing mandatory minimums, offenders could be diverted into drug treatment or probation. According to representative Brandes: “we are trying to get the right sentence to the right person, and make sure the sentence fits the crime. If an offender needs treatment, we should be able to give it to them. Often times, with lower-level offenders, the line between addict and dealer is pretty blurry.”
Alternatives to incarceration not only save the state money, they have been demonstrated to reduce the rate of recidivism.
Should Florida Keep Tabs on its Judges?
Legislation was proposed in the house and the Senate in 2017 that would require the state to record sentencing data for Florida judges and determine whether the data shows any racial disparities. Representative McGhee and Senator Gibson introduced similar bills to the House and Senate, respectively.
According to Deborrah Brodsky, director of Florida State University’s Project on Accountable Justice, “Florida and all other states desperately need to monitor data in the criminal justice system.” But most judges resist the idea of being monitored, especially since the Herald Tribune’s investigation revealed glaring disparities between the sentences they handed down to people of different races. Both McGhee and Gibson’s bills died in committee and were never considered for a vote.
Erika Valcarcel, Criminal Defense Lawyer, P.A. Can Help
Attorney Erika Valcarcel is closely monitoring Florida’s criminal justice reforms. These legislative changes could impact clients’ lives and future litigation strategies. Florida has some of the toughest drug laws in the nation. If you are facing possession or trafficking charges, you need an experienced Sarasota drug lawyer to help you avoid devastating penalties. Contact Erika Valcarcel, Criminal Defense Lawyer, P.A. today at (941) 363-7900 to schedule a consultation.View All Blogs