America’s criminal-justice system at its breaking point. For decades, we’ve been addicted to more: more people convicted of drug offenses in prison; more prosecutors putting people in prison; and more money spent on prosecutors putting people in prison. These policies have not made us safer, haven’t addressed the root causes of crime and haven’t been consistent with principles of limited government.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in drug policy. Florida spent more than a quarter billion dollars to keep people in prison for drug offenses last year alone. Florida continues to add to this waste an alarming rate: Almost a quarter of Florida’s new prison admissions last year were for drug charges.
People in Florida are also serving extraordinarily lengthy sentences. As other states have rolled back mandatory minimum terms that people must serve, Florida has gone the opposite route, expanding the number of charges that carry harsh sentences. Possession of more than 20 grams of marijuana, or possession of any amount of any other drug, can get you up to five years in prison. Having as few as 14 opiate pills will get you locked up for three to 30 years.
Many hoped the state Legislature would act last session to end harsh mandatory minimums for drug offenses. Such action would have led to the release of people like James Caruso, who has already served 17 years of a 25-year mandatory sentence for having a “handful of hydrocodone pills.” Unfortunately, the Legislature failed to recognize or address one of the state’s greatest stains, and it will not meet again until next year. But prosecutors can fill that void, and they should do it now.
First, prosecutors can use alternative programs that keep people in treatment instead of prison. Ramping up treatment and ramping down incarceration for drug cases makes good fiscal sense, and it is good for families. When you keep people out of prison and jail and give them access to the things that they need, our communities are better for it. Every dollar spent on drug treatment saves at least $3, and up to $7, in crime reduction. A study of diversion programs in three jurisdictions found savings, depending on the program, of 82 percent, 59 percent, 46 percent and 38 percent. It makes good fiscal sense, then, to send people to treatment when they need it, rather than saddling them with jail, prison and criminal records.
This would also make Florida safer. It is not incarceration but treatment that helps resolve substance-use disorder. Incarceration does little to address the root causes of drug use, and in some cases, it aggravates it. Conversely, studies show that putting resources into treatment instead of prison reduces recidivism and crime dramatically. That’s why a treatment-focused approach makes sense.
And, even as they continue bringing cases when appropriate, Florida prosecutors can stop asking for lengthy sentences, sentences for low-level drug offenses that lead to people being locked up for decades. Florida regularly imposes incredibly harsh sentences not just on drug kingpins, but on possessors and people selling small amounts of drugs to support their own habit, all because prosecutors ask for them. These aren’t people who pose a danger to us, and yet Florida’s prisons are filled with those who could safely go home tomorrow. As a result, our prisons are bloated, families are torn apart and taxpayers are left holding the bag.
Exercising prosecutorial discretion within existing law to seek justice is not a substitute for needed sentencing reforms. But Florida’s elected prosecuting attorneys should take the lead by seeking drug sentences that prioritize public safety, treatment for those with addiction and good fiscal sense.
Marc Levin is vice president of criminal justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.