On Monday, December, 4th the Senate Criminal Justice Committee will take up two bills (SB 602 & SB 694) that allow judicial discretion on certain drug trafficking offenses. Here are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to judicial safety valves:
- Safety valves allow courts to impose a sentence other than a mandatory minimum for certain defendants under certain circumstances.
- A safety valve does not eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
- A safety valve allows judges to distinguish between low-level offenders, kingpins and major drug dealers as the law originally intended.
In FY 2015, Florida’s mandatory minimum drug laws cost Florida taxpayers $106 million. With the state of Florida housing nearly 100,000 inmates and costing taxpayers nearly $2.4 billion every year, the legislature must address the burgeoning prison population. A smart, safe, and proven way to do that is reforming mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenses. These minimum sentences often do not match the underlying offense, and often apply to those with no prior criminal record.
There are major misconceptions on the efficacy of mandatory minimums and what the discretion of elected judges will and will not mean when applying them. Here is a helpful guide to clear these up.
Myth vs. Facts:
- Myth: Mandatory minimum sentences for all drug offenders are necessary for public safety.
- Fact: There is no evidence that mandatory minimums have any effect on public safety. Many conservative states across the country allow broad discretion for judges when it comes to sentencing drug offenders. For example, Texas law contains virtually no mandatory minimums (except for a few for habitual offender statutes and for high-level violent offenses) and has a nearly identical crime rate to that of Florida.
- Myth: These bills are allowing high-level drug traffickers to not be charged as trafficker.
- Fact: These bills will not affect how someone is charged. These bills only allow a judge to depart from the mandatory minimum only for certain offenders who: 1) did not engage in a continuing criminal enterprise; 2) did not threaten violence or use a weapon during the commission of the crime; and 3) did not cause a death or serious bodily injury.
- Myth: Floridians want mandatory minimums for all drug offenders.
- Fact: According to Right on Crime’s 2017 Florida Registered Voters Survey on Criminal Justice Reform, 81% of registered Florida voters support allowing judges to depart below mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenders, while 75% of registered Florida GOP voters support allowing judges to depart below mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenders.
- Myth: Implementing a judicial safety valve will allow dangerous drug offenders to stay on the streets.
- Fact: This is simply not true. Judicial safety valves allow a judge to look at the facts and circumstances of the particular case and make a determination in the best interest of public safety. Judges can still sentence an offender at or above a mandatory minimum sentence if it is in the best interests of our safety.
 Project on Accountable Justice’s 2017 Report, “Florida Criminal Justice Reform: Understanding the Challenges and Opportunities.” The figure was extrapolated from Florida Department of Corrections’ 2015 annual cost per diem for inmates in prison for mandatory minimum drug sentences.
 Florida Department of Corrections 2017 Annual Budget