Florida’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws are working as planned, putting thousands of people behind bars for an extended period in the wake of the state’s devastating opioid epidemic.
While these measures aim to be tough on crime, they also come with a host of unintended consequences, including prison overcrowding, high costs and disproportionate punishment that often ruins the lives of nonviolent offenders battling drug addiction.
Consider Kenneth Miller, serving 12 years at Lawtey Correctional Institute, to be followed by 10 years’ probation as part of a negotiated plea agreement for “Trafficking of a Controlled Substance — Hydro-morphine.”
In a letter to Jason Pye, public policy director of the libertarian advocacy group Freedom Works, Miller, now 42, described his struggle with addiction after a diagnosis of traumatic brain injury and posttraumatic stress disorder from a near fatal car crash when he was 12 years old.
“The truth of my situation,” Miller writes, “is that I am an addict who got caught up in a large-scale, Osceola County, Florida drug task force effort to thwart the pill epidemic in Central Florida.”
Miller’s crime was possession of more than 100 Dilaudid pills, a potent opioid pain medication used to treat moderate to severe pain.
“I need some help. Real help,” Miller says. “I feel I am a casualty of the culture that seeks to punish addicts, rather than to pursue treatment.”
Miller is among thousands of prisoners and loved ones who are all-too-familiar with the consequences of overly harsh mandatory prison sentences, an issue which advocates say is the downside of a one-size-fits-all approach to punishment, especially in relation to drug-related crimes.
While some consider them criminals, many others take a more compassionate view — seeing these people as victims Florida’s mandatory minimum laws, which helped contribute to a 300 percent increase in U.S. corrections spending over the past two decades. While mandatory minimum laws were initially crafted for capturing key players in the drug wars, such rules frequently ensnare low-level offenders, many without the resources or information to use as leverage for a reduced sentence.
Families Against Mandatory Minimums, another libertarian-leaning nonprofit, has been working since 2010 on the issue of Florida’s mandatory minimum sentencing. FAMM — with the tagline “Sentences that fit. Justice that works.” — believes such laws are ineffective, expensive, unfairly applied and do not keep citizens safe, particularly in cases of self-defense and drug-related crimes.
In Florida, a state with the most severe drug laws in the country, there is growing support for mandatory drug sentencing reforms, despite pushback from law enforcement around the state.
Oxycodone and hydrocodone are the easiest targets for abuse, as legal opioid painkillers when prescribed by medical professionals. However, they are also highly addictive, and when obtained illegally, are considered in the same category as heroin under Florida law.
And when illegal possession rises above certain weight thresholds — as in the case of Kenneth Miller — it automatically becomes a first-degree felony subject to mandatory minimum prison terms.
For example, the prison term for “selling or possession” between seven and 14 grams of oxycodone — about 100 pills of a typical dose — is three years in prison and $50,000 fine. When the quantity reaches 14 to 24 grams, the mandatory term jumps to seven years and $100,000 fine.
At 25 to 100 grams, the penalty rises to a 15-year term and $500,000 fine; for 200 grams and up, offenders get a guaranteed 25-year term and $750,000 fine — the same punishment as sexual battery on a minor under the age of 12.
Hydrocodone pills, which are often larger, have a lower threshold for mandatory sentencing. Only available in a pill form, hydrocodone combines the controlled substance with acetaminophen, making the pills heavier. Subsequently, fewer pills are needed to meet the threshold. Seven pills of 10-milligram hydrocodone in large pills (containing 325 to 750 milligrams of acetaminophen) can reach the 4 grams for a minimum three-year mandatory prison sentence.
According to a recent report by Florida’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government, more than eight in 10 offenders incarcerated for “drug trafficking” have no previous conviction for violent crime; 81 percent had no prior dealing or trafficking convictions; 74 percent have never been to prison.
At the same time, 65 percent of those imprisoned for drug-related offenses are, like Miller, dealing with substance-abuse issues. Just under two-thirds of them pose no risk of recidivism.
“I’m willing to invest in my future,” Miller pleads in his letter, “and learn best how to give back to community service and addiction counseling. Any and all ideas or assistance you might have to help me to pursue these potential remedies is greatly appreciated.”
Miller’s story — as well as the growing number of inmates in similar circumstances — highlight the need for a renewed focus on mandatory minimum drug sentencing reform, as well as supporting innovative re-entry, substance abuse and mental health services.
Several behavioral health care programs, like Bridges of America, The Transition House and Stuart Marchman, which feature “therapeutic communities,” are increasingly at the forefront of the compassionate treatment movement for drug addiction, employment services and the like, all critical to the success of ex-offenders.
And the call for minimum sentencing reforms is extending well beyond partisanship, attracting support from conservative leaders such as Newt Gingrich, Jeb Bush and the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Right on Crime.
Not only will such measures save money and lives, but also make real progress in the fight against Florida’s escalating opioid crisis.