The Orlando Weekly recently reported on Scott Earle, a Florida prisoner who received a minimum 25-year sentence because he possessed more than 28 grams of Percoset.  Due to Florida’s mandatory minimum sentence provision, the judge was required to give Earle the same minimum sentence that is given for first-degree murder.  Earle had no previous criminal history.

In the last 15 years, 18,279 prisoners have been given mandatory minimum sentences in Florida for drug-related convictions, and the number per year is on the rise.  As of last year, nearly 20% of all offenders incarcerated in Florida are serving out sentences for drug offenses.  Former legislators who passed these laws claim that they were only responding to the public concern of the time. Former House Member Dick Batchelor, for example, called stiff sentences for drug offenses, “the law du jour back then.”

New Florida Governor Rick Scott, however, is taking a new approach.  One of his first acts as governor was the creation of a “Law and Order Transition Team.”  This committee suggested that Florida reexamine its mandatory minimum laws because eliminating the laws could save the state at least $80 million.  Florida’s current per-prisoner cost is just under $20,000 per year.  Meanwhile, the estimated costs of court-ordered rehabilitation programs are, at the highest estimates, only $2,500 per person per year.  Therefore, were the state to take its 19,723 non-violent drug offenders and place them in rehabilitation programs, the state could expect savings of around $320 million.  Furthermore, it would go a long way in helping these offenders kick their drug habit and do more to ensure that offenders won’t be back in prison in a few months for yet another drug violation.

Responding to Governor Scott’s call, the Florida House introduced HB 917 during this year’s legislative session.  The bill, which did not make it to the House floor for a full vote, would have created a re-entry program for non-violent drug offenders who have completed at least half of their sentences, placing them in rehabilitation programs designed to re-introduce them into society – and thus reducing the long-term financial burden on the state. Unfortunately, the bill’s progress was halted as legislators set the bill aside to focus on the immediate problems of Florida budget during the state’s brief legislative session.

HB 917 was not perfect, but it was a step in the right direction, and it will likely return again because Floridians realize that mandatory minimums are not really tough on crime. Floridians also realize that many of their neighbors (like Scott Earle) are better served by becoming drug free and having a financially independent life – not by being thrown into an expensive jail cell for the same amount of time as a murderer.