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Opioid Crisis Needs Safety Valves

| July 5, 2017

The opioid crisis plaguing the country has hit Florida hard. To combat this epidemic, many lawmakers and law enforcement have pushed for harsh mandatory minimum sentences for possessors and drug dealers. However, as history has shown us, this strategy will not work.

In the 1980’s and 90’s the federal government and the states (including Florida) attempted to stop the crack cocaine epidemic by enacting harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. We now know that this strategy did not bring about the return on investment in terms of safety and drug use.  Additionally, this came at a steep price tag.

Over the last 30 years, federal prison populations have grown significantly and contrary to the goals of mandatory minimums, our prisons are not filled with the “worst of the worst.” About half of the federal prison population are inmates who have been convicted drug-related offenses. Of those, only 14% were actually convicted of major drug trafficking. Many of the remaining 86% of drug offenders do not even possess a prior criminal record.

This is not to say drug users and those who traffic drugs should go unpunished; far from it. However, mandatory minimums take all discretion from Florida judges to look at all the circumstances of a case and make a sound sentencing determination based upon the evidence. Implementing what “safety valves” for mandatory minimum sentences would help solve this issue. A safety valve simply means a judge can depart from a minimum sentence if the offender meets certain criteria. Florida does have safety valves, but only for some violent and property related crimes – not for drug related offenses.

The good news? Florida’s property crime rate has decreased by 57.4% and the violent crime rate has decreased by 57.1% since safety valves were created in 1995. What’s interesting is judges can depart from a mandatory minimum sentence for certain hit and run offenses but the judges’ hands are tied when it comes to drug addicts who would benefit more from treatment than prison.

There is no question Florida is suffering from a major opioid crisis and it is crucial we take the RIGHT steps to not only stop major traffickers but to also help addicts find the proper treatment so we can reduce recidivism and protect the public.

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CHELSEA MURPHY  has been immersed in Florida politics for the past decade, and advocated on behalf of various clients ranging from Fortune 500 companies, trade associations, non-profits, to local governments. More specifically to justice reform she represented the largest and oldest private provider for re-entry programming in the state of Florida. She helped start two smart justice coalitions, and she’s represented a variety of mental and behavioral health stakeholders.

Chelsea is based in Tallahassee where she lives with her husband and two children.

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