With the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Alleyne v. U.S., it seemed as we might as a nation be collectively moving away from the rigid, nonsensical rules of minimum mandatory sentencing within our criminal justice system. Such guidelines were a knee-jerk response to the 1980s scourge of crack-cocaine addiction that led to violent crimes in many inner cities. But over time, our bulging prisons and decimated communities told us what those directly affected had known for years: Minimum mandatory sentencing doesn't work. It's harmful to communities. It strips judges of discretionary powers. It disproportionately harms minorities.
Many states began rolling back these restrictive laws in the 2000s. Then came the Alleyne ruling, in which U.S. Supreme Court justices ruled such penalties were unconstitutional unless jurors could rule whether there was reasonable doubt as to the factors that resulted in the enhanced penalty. That same year, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder instructed federal prosecutors not to pursue crimes that carried minimum mandatory sentences for low-level drug offenders, opting instead for lesser charges.
Now, the new Attorney General Jeff Sessions is walking the Department of Justice back on this directive, now instructing federal prosecutors to charge and pursue the most serious, readily-provable offense.
As our Jacksonville drug crime defense lawyers can explain, this is a stark reversal of Holder's policy - one that Holder characterized as "dumb on crime" (as opposed to the "tough on crime" mantra supporters tout).
Minimum Mandatory Sentencing Florida
Florida's own state laws are harsh when it comes to drug offenders. Minimum mandatory penalties have some offenders serving 25 years for selling a few hundred dollars worth of illegal drugs. Minimum mandatory sentencing does not allow prosecutors or judges to take into account potentially mitigating factors to sentences someone below these guidelines.
For example, F.S. 893.135 stipulates anyone knowingly selling, purchasing, manufacturing, delivering or bringing into the state 25 pounds to 2,000 pounds of marijuana (or more than 300 plants) commits a first-degree felony, which carries a minimum mandatory penalty of three years in prison. That sentences could go as high as 30 years.
In the case of the Florida woman serving 25 years for selling $300 worth of pills back in 2002, the Miami Herald reports her incarceration will cost taxpayers $451,600 by the time she is released six years from now.
Earlier this year, the Florida Senate Criminal Justice Committee, concluding this is money poorly spent, voted unanimously to eradicate minimum mandatory sentences for non-violent offenses in Florida. Proponents of Senate Bill 290, also referred to as the "prison diversion bill," argued it would save an estimated $131 million in taxpayer costs and put 1,000 fewer bodies in prison annually. Companion bill SJ 56 was introduced in February. Unfortunately, the measure died in the Judiciary back in May.
More Federal Drug Prosecutions
Sessions' memorandum will inevitably mean more people in federal prisons who will stay for longer terms. It's unclear how the Department of Justice plans to help address the ongoing issue of prison overpopulation, which bipartisan studies have shown need to be reduced by 60,000 over the next 10 years just to not be at an overflowing capacity.
Perhaps the bigger concern, though, is that it doesn't do much to reduce drug use (as we are in the midst of a heroin and opioid epidemic), nor does it improve public safety. These are legitimate goals of the Department of Justice, but they won't be achieved this way.
Those who find themselves facing federal or state drug charges in Florida should seek an experienced criminal defense attorney who can help protect your reputation, your freedom, your finances and your future.