Strict Mandatory Florida Drug Laws Come Under Fire

Drug laws have been routinely questioned in the past few years, in part due to many new studies proving how little effect strict sentencing policies have on the rulebreakers. It was 1999 when Florida put into place stricter, mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines — for the second time. It had repealed a similar set of sentencing guidelines all the way back in 1993. Now the laws are once again under fire because of their ineffectiveness.

The drug trafficking laws have raised the most eyebrows. 

The Juvenile Justice Information Exchange’s (JJIE) Gregory Newburn writes: “For example, illegal possession or sale of seven hydrocodone pills was ‘drug trafficking’ punishable by a mandatory minimum three-year prison sentence. At 27 pills, the mandatory minimum jumped to 15 years. At 54 pills — a few days’ supply for an average user — the mandatory minimum for 25 years, the same sentence mandated for importing 30 kilograms of heroin, and 10 years longer than the sentence for importing 150 kilograms of cocaine.”

Those laws become even more painful when one compares them to mandatory sentencing guidelines for first degree murder. They’re particularly eye-opening today, when most medical specialists agree that we shouldn’t be putting people in jail for drug crimes at all. Most of these people need medical help and therapy — not jail time. 

The laws recently changed to become more sensible, but most argue they don’t go nearly far enough (because they still exist). Newburn said that, “the Legislature raised the trafficking threshold for hydrocodone again earlier this year, so under current law one must possess or sell roughly 200 pills to trigger a 15-year sentence, and around 600 pills for a 25-year sentence.” 

That’s still a lot of time draining tax dollars for a nonviolent offense.

And then there’s another problem: Offenders who are currently serving sentences imposed before the new change in law are still subject to the old law. James Caruso was sentenced to 25 years in prison 17 years ago — but today, the same offense would have likely put him on probation. He said in 2017, “A person in Florida could literally do the exact same thing today that I did in 2002 and still get out of prison before me.”

New legislation might change that retrospectively, if passed. Representative Alex Andrade (R-FL) filed HB 339 with bipartisan support. Senator Darryl Rousin (D-FL) filed SB 902. Should the legislation be enacted into law, they would allow past offenders to be granted new sentencing hearings. 

But proponents of legal change want mandatory sentencing axed for good. The money, they say, should be invested into programs that make more of a difference for drug users, like counseling.