TALLAHASSEE -- When U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced last week that he was ordering prosecutors to stop charging lower-level drug offenders with “draconian minimum mandatory sentences,” he echoed the refrain from a bi-partisan coalition of activists who have tried and failed to get legislators to change the laws in Florida.
The cost of incarcerating a drug offender for a mandatory three-year prison sentence in Florida is estimated at $58,400, while the cost of treatment in a work release program is $19,130, according to an analysis by the Florida Office of Program and Policy Analysis and Government Accountability.
Meanwhile, Florida’s crime rate is at a 41-year low but the prison population continues to grow with non-violent, first-time offenders, most of whom are snared by undercover agents targeting them for trafficking in small quantities of prescription drugs, the analysis found.
The Florida Department of Corrections reports that taxpayers are spending an estimated $300 million a year to house people incarcerated for drug offenses.
Holder announced last Mondaya major shift in federal sentencing policies, targeting long mandatory terms that he said have flooded the nation's prisons with low-level drug offenders and diverted crime-fighting dollars that could be far better spent.
If Holder's policies are implemented aggressively, they could mark one of the most significant changes in the way the federal criminal justice system handles drug cases since the government declared a war on drugs in the 1980s
As a first step, Holder has instructed federal prosecutors to stop charging many nonviolent drug defendants with offenses that carry mandatory minimum sentences. His next step will be working with a bipartisan group in Congress to give judges greater discretion in sentencing.
The move mirrors new laws adopted in a growing number of states, including Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio and Texas, and is endorsed by a wide range of interest groups. The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights called it “game-changing.” U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, said in a blog post on Friday that it “signaled a significant shift toward justice.”
But whether the announcement will have any affect on Florida, where a bi-partisan group of activists and legislators have tried to shift the focus from drug incarcerations to treatment and diversion, is still an open question.
“It’s time to start using our brains on this issue,’’ said Rep. Dave Hood, R-Daytona Beach, a lawyer and one of several freshman lawmakers who support ending minimum mandatory sentences for certain drug crimes. “Let’s look at the facts and evidence and not the anecdotes. We are ruining lives and families forever.”
Rep. Katie Edwards, a freshman Democrat from Sunrise, sponsored legislation last year that would have allowed judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences for trafficking in illegal prescription drugs. The proposal passed every House committee but never came to a final vote after being blocked in the Senate.
Now, Edwards and others believe Holder’s announcement could lead to an influx of drug offenders in the state system, putting pressure on the state to adjust.
If a federal prosecutor wants a tougher punishment for a drug offender “he can kick over the case to the state,’’ said Greg Newburn, Florida director of the Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which is working to change state and federal laws. “That could be extremely costly move for Florida if it decides not to change its sentencing laws.”