George Gibbs Center for Economic Prosperity

Manda⁠t⁠ory M⁠i⁠n⁠i⁠mum Laws for Nonv⁠i⁠olen⁠t⁠ Drug Offenders Are No⁠t⁠ Work⁠i⁠ng

By: Guest Author / 2017

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 ina new reportby 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.