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Why Florida Needs a Safety Valve to Prevent Excessively Harsh Mandatory Minimum Sentences for Drug Offenses

Tuesday, March 21, 2017 3:01
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Florida routinely sentences individuals to unnecessarily long prison terms for illegally possessing or selling a quantity of prescription medication that contains very small amounts of oxycodone and/or hydrocodone. Due to the rigid nature of Florida’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws for these offenders, judges are required to sentence all individuals convicted of these offenses to the same mandatory prison term regardless of whether or not there are any mitigating circumstances present.

Ideally, the state would once again do away with mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking offenses, as it did with the lower-level drug trafficking minimums in 1993 through 1999. However, if that’s not politically possible, Florida legislators should consider enacting a safety valve.

If Florida were to create a safety valve exception for certain individuals convicted of these trafficking offenses, the state could save millions of dollars per year, and prioritize prison space for more serious offenders. All individuals, circumstances of crimes, and outcomes are different. To treat all of these defendants the same—regardless of culpability, dangerousness, or criminal history—inevitably means that some lower-level offenders, for which shorter sentences or alternative punishments would be more appropriate (and more beneficial for public safety), are sentenced as harshly as high-level traffickers, all for exercising their right to trial. Judges can and should be able to use discretion in cases where the punishment clearly does not fit the crime and a mandatory minimum sentence exists.

Public safety is not enhanced when individuals are incarcerated for years longer than necessary. There’s no evidence from Florida or elsewhere that shows when judges are allowed to determine sentences—or, to judge—public safety is threatened. Allowing judges to exercise judgment, and make individual determinations as to what sentence would be in the best interest of justice and public safety is smart policy. Florida judges already make individual determinations when sentencing for offenses that do not carry mandatory minimums, and they already employ a safety valve for certain hit-and-run offenses. Extending a safety valve to these two trafficking offenses would allow the state to better prioritize public safety and save millions of taxpayer dollars each year. Florida would be wise to enact such a policy. 

Read the full policy brief published by the James Madison Institute— Smart on Sentencing: Safety Valve for Florida’s Drug Trafficking Offenses


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