Having served as a judge on the First District Court of Appeal, I have seen firsthand countless cases in which defendants have been sentenced to harsh prison terms. While I believe wholeheartedly that some of those offenders deserved the sentences they were given, there were also many first-time offenders convicted of low-level drug crimes who received unreasonably long prison sentences.
This standard of incarceration for low-level drug crimes because of mandatory minimum sentencing laws raised important questions and concerns in my mind, including what kind of impact a lengthy prison stay, and consequent exposure to an undesirable criminal element, has on an individual in the long term. It also made me question whether offenders who are nonviolent, and often merely addicts, should be diverted into rehabilitation programs instead of prison so that they can have an opportunity to become more productive, healthy members of society.
Florida’s current system of mandatory minimum sentencing means that our court system, the branch of government that arguably interacts most with those being charged and convicted, often has no discretion over how someone convicted of a drug crime is sentenced. Moreover, these laws treat an addict in possession of a controlled substance no differently than the leader of a drug ring, so long as the amount the person is caught with meets a minimum threshold. Mandatory minimums also do not take into account any mitigating factors, such as whether it’s a first offense.
Fundamentally, I believe there must be a paradigm shift in how society views the criminal justice system overall. Rather than sentencing people to overly-harsh prison terms — which does not reduce recidivism or necessarily increase public safety — the goal should be rehabilitation. This paradigm shift must occur in the way all three branches of government approach criminal justice. While wholesale change cannot and should not happen overnight, incremental changes can be made now to Florida’s criminal justice system. Minor changes enacted over time can make the system fairer and ensure that those who need help get help, rather than just locking them up in prison where they will have little opportunity to overcome their problems and re-enter society in a productive manner.
One such effort to incrementally reform the system is a legislative push to introduce a mechanism that would allow judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentencing. Referred to as a judicial safety valve, this would allow the courts to really look at each defendant’s individual case, the circumstances surrounding it, and the person’s background, to better determine the appropriate sentence.
This forward-thinking, tightly worded legislation, introduced by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, gives needed flexibility to the courts, while keeping mandatory minimum sentencing in place for those who engage in a continuing criminal drug enterprise, commit or threaten violence, or have a weapon while committing the crime, and should absolutely be sentenced to the full mandatory minimum. It moves away from a one-size-fits-all, blanket policy on sentencing that is antiquated and does not serve the good of the public.
As the discussion on criminal justice reform evolves, I look forward to being on the frontlines and advocating for sentencing reforms, including the judicial safety valve, which will ultimately lead to a fairer criminal justice system and a more appropriate sentencing structure.
Simone Marstiller is a signatory to Right on Crime, a national campaign to promote successful, conservative solutions on American criminal justice policy. Currently with the Gunster law firm, she served on Florida’s First District Court of Appeal for six years.