Edwards warns that caseloads for state public defenders and state attorneys are already at the breaking point and “this may force our hand and really finally get the ball rolling.”
Drug convictions in Florida have surged in the last decade with the abuse of prescription drugs. Convictions for trafficking more than quadrupled between 2006 and 2012 and, in most cases, judges had little discretion but to sentence offenders to a mandatory three years behind bars. Three of four drug offenders have little or no prior criminal history and just as many have substance abuse and addiction problems, the OPPAGA report found.
The cost of housing those prisoners sentenced to mandatory minimum sentences is estimated at $97.5 million a year, according to the Florida Department of Corrections. Only one third received any treatment or re-entry skills and, after release, the data shows, three in five of the drug offenders return on a drug offense.
One of the most active proponents of reforming the system is the Smart Justice Alliance, a business-backed advocacy group that argues the cost savings will allow the state to shift resources into education and economic development. It is backed by non-profit companies who acknowledge they want to get a piece of the state’s prisoner rehabilitation business.
But resistance is strong. In addition to the reluctance of legislators who worry they will be perceived as being soft on crime, the pushback includes prosecutors, the Florida Sheriff’s Association and both public prison officials and private prison lobbyists. The prison advocates have quietly opposed the legislation at a time when there is a surplus of prison beds in Florida.
In 2012, Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a bill that would have allowed nonviolent offenders to receive drug counseling. His argument: prosecutors feared it would mean that some prisoners would leave prison early, and fail to serve the mandatory minimum 85 percent of their sentences.
Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Green Cove Springs, and a former assistant state attorney, agrees in theory that federal prosecutors could steer more cases to state court, crowding the dockets. But he wants to change the law because it makes sense. He plans to file a bill next session to change what he considers a glitch in the law that allows someone to be sentenced to three years in prison on drug trafficking charges for seven pills of oxycodone, treating the less potent prescription drugs the same way it treats 28 grams of cocaine.
The laws were written during the era of Miami Vice and drug cartels, “when the legislative mindset was focused on heroine and cocaine, not opiates,’’ he said.
Edwards’ bill included a similar provision to modify the law for prescription drug crimes. Legislative analysts estimated a savings of $58 million and 576 fewer prison beds. She believes the fear of closing prisons, not the best public policy, is what worked against them.
“There’s an absolute economic incentive to keep people in prison as long as we can so we can profit from them,’’ she said. “Tell me what threat [non-violent, drug offenders] are to society, because they are a threat to the state budget.”
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, chairman of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, said he plans to push for sentencing reforms next session. But, in addition to offering more leniency to non-violent drug offenders who commit first-time crimes, he wants those changes offset with new laws that will increase penalties for crimes against the elderly and children.
“The reason Rep. Edwards’ bill did not become law is it was only beneficial to offenders. It did not enhance public safety,’’ he said. He also opposes the proposals pushed by the Smart Justice Alliance whose goal, Gaetz said, is “a series of reforms that would really create a pipeline for rehabilitation and re-entry services.”
Barney Bishop, director of the Alliance, challenges that characterization.
“I’ve never known Republicans were opposed to companies making a profit, especially a not-for-profit,’’ he said. The reforms will lead to fewer people in the pipeline, he said, adding that only about 33 percent of the state’s 102,000 prisoners receive treatment.
“If we can break the cycle so they don’t come back, we will save hundreds of millions,’’ Bishop said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas