TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Housing more than 100,000 prisoners costs Florida taxpayers about $2.4 billion a year, and thousands of these inmates have been given mandatory sentences for drug dealing -- but in some cases, it was only for dealing a small amount.
“It's become a prison industrial complex,” said Dominic Calabro, the president of the group Florida Tax Watch. “It's very, very costly.”
Certain drug crimes come with mandatory minimum sentences, meaning when a person is convicted, by law, he or she has to serve a minimum term. But some Florida lawmakers contend that the policies don’t work and that the state’s prisons are becoming overcrowded.
Proposals in the state Legislature, filed for the 2018 session, would give judges the option to hand out lesser sentences. Judges would be able to divert from minimum mandatory sentences for certain drug charges.
“This is a good way of giving judges appropriate (discretion and) saving taxpayers money,” Calabro said.
One proposal allows judges to reduce sentences for the lowest mandatory minimums of three years.
A second bill, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Brandes, would apply to all drug-related mandatory minimums, but only for nonviolent first offenders.
Opponents argue that the current law sets possession amounts so high that no average users ever get a mandatory minimum.
“I mean, for pot, you're talking about 25 pounds of pot -- up to 200 pounds of pot,” said Barney T. Bishop of the Smart Justice Alliance.
But there are examples of individuals selling, or in possession of, opiate prescriptions. When measured by weight, relatively small amounts can result in lengthy prison sentences, even for a first offense.
“Our bill simply allows judges to look at the individual facts of the case and figure out whether he's dealing with a drug kingpin or an addict,” said Brandes, R-St. Petersburg.
An estimated 1,500 Florida prisoners behind bars for selling painkillers have never been imprisoned previously. They’re costing taxpayers more than $29 million each year.
Other legislation on the table would only allow judges to reduce mandatory minimum sentences to one-third of their original length.