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Columns

Mandatory Minimum Laws for Nonviolent Drug Offenders Are Not Working

April 20, 2017 - 8:00am

William Forrester was on disability, and recently had a lung removed due to cancer. After he was unable to obtain painkillers legally, Forrester forged a prescription for 120 oxycodone pills, which he then filled at a drug store. When he did it again, the pharmacist called the doctor to confirm the authenticity of the prescription. After the doctor told the pharmacist he had not authorized the prescription, Forrester was charged with trafficking 15.6 grams of Oxycodone.

Forrester was convicted at trial, and sentenced to 15 years in prison, the mandatory minimum sentence for that offense. Judge Mark Blechman, who sentenced Forrester, said, "If [drug rehabilitation] was an option, then certainly we would talk about it. But my hands are tied by the law, and I have to sentence you to 15 years, and there's no ifs, ands or buts about it. There's no other -- the Legislature has said for this particular crime, we prescribe a fixed sentence." 

Judge Blechman added, "...we get the addicted, and we get the organized crime, all treated the same under the wording of the Legislature. But since the Legislature is the Legislature and the Court is the Court, we have to enforce the laws, and we're stuck with them, and we can't carve exceptions that don't exist."
 
Now 60 years old, Forrester -- whose case is profiled in a new report by the James Madison Institute and the Reason Foundation -- is not scheduled to be released from prison until 2021.

Florida's mandatory minimum laws for nonviolent drug offenders do not work. They have increased prison populations and led to historically high corrections spending, but have done nothing to deter drug trafficking, drug abuse, or drug overdose deaths. These laws do not make our communities safer, but instead needlessly incarcerate low-level offenders - sometimes for decades - when alternative sanctions, such as drug courts and substance abuse treatment, would be more effective at breaking the cycle of addiction and crime.

HB 731, which I am sponsoring, gives judges the freedom to depart from mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent drug offenses. This will allow courts more discretion to impose punishments that fit the crime, and distinguish between low-level offenders and the "major players" mandatory minimums were designed to target. HB 731 implements the wise advice of 14th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Glenn Hess, who said, "Every case should be treated on its merits ... Leave it up to the judge to decide which offenders are dangerous and treat them appropriately."

Florida's arbitrary mandatory minimum sentencing laws do not allow judges to take into consideration many of the underlying circumstances of an individual's drug offense. This often leads to absurd and unjust results, such as low-level couriers and those battling addiction sentenced as if they were drug kingpins. Worst of all, mandatory minimums have been completely ineffective. Though mandatory minimums were sold as a solution that would end the scourge of drug abuse in Florida once and for all, drug arrests, prison admissions, and drug-induced deaths have all risen since Florida adopted mandatory minimums for lower-level trafficking offenses in 1999.

Drug related parole has decreased as a result of mandatory minimum laws.

HB 731 offers a better way forward. Instead of centralized mandates from Tallahassee, sentencing discretion gives local actors the real-time flexibility to solve complex problems of crime and addiction in ways consistent with their community's values. The bill could also save more than $130 million over five years, freeing up scarce resources that could be better used to fight crime. HB 731 is a commonsense change to a law long overdue for reform.

Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, has served in the Florida House of Representatives since 2012.

Comments

"Nelson Rockefeller Mandatory Minimum Drug Laws" NOT WORKING???????.....YA THINK?????....After ALL this time!!!!!!!!!!? Sadly, Forrester will get his meds REGULARLY for the rest of his natural life, along with "3 Hots and a Cot"..... THIS situation has ALWAYS been one of the consequences of Rockefeller's INSANE law..... But have Legislators, over at least the past four decades or more, done ANYTHING to remedy this ever ongoing debacle?!?!?... ALSO "sadly" NO !... After all, What could possibly "be in it for them"??? "Legislation" (from the beginning of Legislatures) has ALWAYS been "hit & run"..... After all (as the saying goes in Legislatures across the land) "I'll be outa here before any problems may arise.." UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES Boys,....IT'S ALWAYS the "UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES" (Read" Frederic Bastiat's small, short, books... they should be required reading for prospective politicians ! )

I so much agree with you on this subject. I have seen firsthand the corruption and misconduct happening with the justice system and drug offenses. Incarceration is not the answer and definitely does not resolve addiction. When in fact increases the problem most always. There is a difference in recovery and incarceration and the sooner we as a society see this and change our direction in a new way of thinking. The sooner the addiction epidemic can be solved. How can we help to pass this legislation HB-731? I am willing to help and know many people who also will help!

The real question is, why is someone with cancer not receiving pain relief from their doctor???? Lung cancer!! Cancer pain is horrible. I certainly condone stealing anything to relieve pain like that. Anyone who does not care about a fellow human being in that kind of constant agony is a monster, the doctor included.

VERY well stated, Rep. Edwards! Too bad the remainder of the legislative bunch are more interested in how they might maneuver extra cash for themselves, such as living with other representatives yet, collecting their full housing pay! Anything for themselves, but common sense? Nahhhhhh Good luck Rep. Edwards!

Well done Katie! I can't condone the stealing of a prescription, and you are not either, but a 15 year mandatory minimum sentence is too long. Our Legislature is tying the hands of our Dr's who treat chronic pain management, and we get treated like convicts during the process. Pam Bondi is a huge part of this problem. Go after Fentynyl but leave real handicapped people alone. We suffer enough. Even a task as mundane as grocery shopping makes you suffer for days on end. Thank you again Katie. Common sense legislation.

very well stated... There are 3 things that politicians should NEVER be involved in. They are education, law enforcement, and public safety/corrections. Every time it happens, there are tragic results. Look at all of the current hot button issues right now and the messes politicians have created. Education is a mess, private prisons are in the news everyday for poor service, contract violations, mismanagement of funds and cooking the books, and these foolish mandatory minimums and ridiculous sentencing guidelines. It should be an amendment to our State Constitution, but they would never do that to take their power away to be stupid...

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