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Florida’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws ripe for reform

William Patrick,

Florida’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws have done what they were designed to do: put thousands of people behind bars for long periods of time.

But the tough-on-crime measures also have led to nightmarish outcomes for those caught in circumstances where the stiff automatic punishments don’t fit their alleged crimes.

In 2012, Jacksonville resident Marissa Alexander, a mother of three, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot into her ceiling to scare off her abusive husband during a domestic dispute.

At her sentencing, Alexander’s presiding judge disagreed with the 20-year term, but his hands were tied. “The legislature has not given me the discretion to do what the family and many others have asked me to do,” said Circuit Judge James Daniel.

Alexander’s sentence was overturned after three years of incarceration, but others haven’t been so lucky.

Consider Michael Giles, a former Air Force serviceman with foreign tours in Iraq and Kuwait. Giles shot an attacker in the leg in 2010, after he was assaulted from behind in a Tallahassee parking lot. Giles was given a 25-year minimum prison sentence. He’ll be nearly 50 years old upon release in 2035.

Orville Lee Wollard discharged his legally owned firearm into a wall in 2008, in an attempt to get his daughter’s boyfriend to leave his home. The boyfriend had an abusive history, and already had blackened his daughter’s eye and attacked the 5’-8” man the same evening.

Wollard received a 20-year sentence, which his trial judge said was “obviously excessive.” Wollard is now 61, his family has split up and he has 12 more years left on his prison sentence.

There are others like them. What they have in common is being subjected to Florida’s mandatory minimum laws.

Alexander, Giles and Wollard were sentenced under the state’s 10-20-life mandatory minimum that originally was intended to punish dangerous criminals and drug kingpins when violent crime was on the rise in the 1990s.

Crime has declined significantly since, but the one-size-fits-all laws persist and continue to ensnare people who may not warrant long prison terms.

Under 10-20-life, a judge is required to sentence a person convicted of an offense to a minimum 10-year, 20-year or life prison sentence if the individual possessed a gun, fired a gun or fired a gun causing bodily harm while committing the offense.

Alexander, Giles and Wollard were convicted of aggravated assault, defined in Florida as an assault with a deadly weapon without the intent to kill.

Since its creation in 1999, more than 15,000 inmates have been admitted to Florida state prisons as a result of 10-20-Life. More than 230 inmates currently are serving time for mandatory aggravated assault convictions, according to the state Criminal Justice Impact Conference.

“If I could press a button and repeal mandatory minimums, I’d break my thumb doing it,” Greg Newborn, Florida policy director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, told in an interview.

The libertarian-conservative leaning nonprofit has been working on the issue in Florida since 2010. The group believes mandatory minimum laws are ineffective, in addition to often being unjustly applied — especially with respect to self-defense and drug-offense cases.

FAMM’s reform approach is simple: Highlight the human costs and advocate for more effective public-safety measures.

The benefits of reform, the group says, include a smaller prison population, taxpayer savings, more available resources for proven law enforcement programs and restored families.

Earlier this year, FAMM partnered with the National Rifle Association to successfully push for a full repeal of 10-20-Life sentencing minimums relating to aggravated assaults with firearms, which represent nearly 60 percent of all gun crime in Florida.

The so-called “warning shot” bill was the first time in more than 20 years a mandatory minimum sentence was repealed in the state. It’s a big step in the right direction, said Newburn, a former high school teacher and Cato Institute scholar.

The Florida Constitution, however, doesn’t allow for the retroactive application of the repeal. Individuals incarcerated under the former sentencing rubric — like Giles and Wollard — remain in prison.

FAMM has its sights on eventually springing unaffected inmates from behind bars. Petitioning a constitutional review committee and lobbying the governor’s office for commutations have been floated as possible ways forward.

Meanwhile, the group’s 2017 legislative agenda is taking aim at mandatory minimums for Oxycodone and Hydrocodone prescription drug offenses.

Florida’s illegal drug laws are among the harshest in the country. Where overturning stiff mandatory penalties for self-defense gained broad-based support, altering sanctions for drug offenses is more politically fractious.

The Florida Sheriff’s Association and the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association are on record opposing mandatory drug sentencing reforms, leading groups like FAMM to take an incremental approach to dialing them back.

Oxycodone and Hydrocodone are seen as the lowest-hanging fruit. Those two drugs are legal opiate-based painkillers when prescribed by a medical physician. They’re also highly addictive and treated similarly to street heroin under Florida law when obtained illegally.

Most trafficking offenses — which includes possession above certain weight thresholds — are first-degree felonies and subject to mandatory minimum prison terms.

Oxycodone carries an automatic three-year mandatory prison term and $50,000 fine if an individual is caught unlawfully selling or possessing an amount between seven grams and 14 grams.

According to a legislative policy review, seven grams to 14 grams is about 54 to 108 standard-sized 30 milligram dosage Oxycodone pills. Hydrocodone pills are larger and require fewer pills to meet the slightly higher weight thresholds that trigger mandatory sentencing.

Fourteen grams to 24 grams of Oxycodone is an automatic seven-year prison term and $100,000 fine, 25 grams to 100 grams is an automatic 15-year term and $500,000 fine, and 200 grams and above is an automatic 25-year prison term and $750,000 fine, or the same punishment for sexual battery on a minor under the age of 12 years.

Newburn said the sentence structure needs a “safety-valve” measure.

“The mandatory minimum would stay on the books, but a safety valve would create sentencing exceptions to avoid rigid and excessive applications of punishments when they’re clearly inappropriate,” he said.

A report from the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government showed the average convicted trafficker is more of a small-time addict than a drug kingpin.

84 percent of incarcerated offenders have never been convicted of a violent crime.

81 percent have no prior dealing or trafficking convictions.

74 percent have never been to prison.

65 percent have substance-abuse issues.

61 percent were at low risk for recidivism.

A safety valve could offer state prosecuting attorneys room to compromise and plea bargain Oxycodone and Hydrocodone trafficking cases down to lesser sentences, if particular cases called for it.

“We have an overly centralized sentencing scheme that doesn’t allow for exceptions,” Newburn said.

“Without reform, we’re going to continue to see outlier cases where the wrong people are being imprisoned for long periods of time,” he said. “And a lot more people are affected by drugs than by 10-20-Life self-defense.”

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