The following is a guest post written by Logan Strain a writer for Instant Checkmate, an online background check service. When he isn’t reading, he’s hanging out with his daughter.
By: Logan Strain
In Florida, having enough pills to fit into the palm of your hand will land you in prison for three years. At least. Statute 893.135(1)(c) doesn’t allow for wriggle room. You don’t need to carry the pills across state lines. You don’t need prior convictions. You don’t need to sell them. Just being caught with 4 grams of the opiate oxycodone without a prescription is enough to guarantee that you will spend a minimum of three years staring at prison bars, even if the judge presiding over your case thinks you should get less time.
This is one of the “mandatory minimum” sentences that many states, and even the federal government, have on their books. They enforce strict sentences on certain drug crimes, and strip judges of the power to hand down a sentence they believe is just. Mandatory minimums started in 1958 with the Boggs Act. They gained steam when New York Mayor Nelson Rockefeller cracked down hard on drug users in the early 1970s. Florida is notorious for having the harshest mandatory minimums in the country, though tough measures certainly haven’t prevented Florida from having a violent crime rate that is higher than the national average.
It’s easy to find victims of this one-size fits all approach to sentencing. Atiba Parker of Mississippi was sentenced to 42 years for selling less than 3 grams of crack cocaine. Todd Hannigan received a 15 year prison sentence after an unsuccessful attempt to commit suicide with Vicodin. In one of the most famous examples, Stephanie George of Florida received a mandatory life sentence for her role in a conspiracy to acquire and distribute cocaine. In George’s case, even the judge objected, saying, “I wish I had another alternative… It certainly doesn’t deserve a life sentence.”
Past attempts to push back against mandatory minimums were stymied by the political climate. Politicians who feared election-season attack ads that called them “soft on crime” didn’t want to touch legislation designed to punish drug dealers. But the consequences of these strict laws, especially in a country that has the highest incarceration rate in the world, have become so intolerable that representatives at the highest levels of government have acted to change how America handles crime.
In August of last year, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department would no longer pursue mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. In defense of the decision, he cited the expense of incarcerating so many people and the ineffectiveness of mandatory minimum sentences. “Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason,” Holder told the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates in San Francisco.
Following Holder’s lead, the Senate is also re-examining harsh drug laws. In January the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to slash mandatory minimum sentences and retroactively reduce sentences for crack possession. The bill will provide a path to freedom for over 7,000 people convicted of possessing or selling crack cocaine.
This is encouraging. But since most drug laws are enforced on the state level, we won’t see real changes until individual states re-examine their sentencing practices. Fortunately states who are eager to save money and reduce their prison populations have been enacting reforms with great success. A report by the Urban Institute tracked individual states after they implemented justice system reforms. They found that 17 states reduced their combined prison costs by an estimated $4.6 Billion. Eight states — Arkansas, Hawaii, Louisiana, Kentucky, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, and South Carolina – reduced their prison populations.
While there is still a long way to go, changes within the last year have signaled that attitudes toward how we treat criminals have shifted. More Americans want to see policies that actually help communities rather than harshly deal with offenders.
Stephanie George is one of the first to benefit from this more cool-headed approach to sentencing. When she was imprisoned at the age of 27 in 1997, she thought she would spend the rest of her life in an American penitentiary. But President Obama stepped in on December 19, 2013 to grant George a commutation of her sentence.
After 17 years behind bars, she will be released on April 17, 2014.