Why Has Drug Sentencing Reform been so Hard to Achieve in Florida?

Earlier this month, the U.S. Attorney General announced a significant change in federal drug policy. Rather than insist that individuals convicted of low-level federal drug offenses be subject to severe mandatory minimum sentences in order to appear tough on crime, Eric Holder announced that federal prosecutors must retreat from this practice. Significant offenders will remain subject to certain minimums. But the federal government will no longer be authorizing lengthy incarceration minimums for low-level offenders.

Interestingly, bi-partisan criminal justice advocates have been trying to inspire a similar shift in sentencing approaches in Florida for years. Their efforts have been largely unsuccessful. Why has it been so difficult for Florida to enact the same policy shift being embraced by federal prosecutors for similar low-level drug crimes?

The answer to this question remains somewhat mysterious. According to the Florida Office of Program and Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, incarcerating a low-level drug offender for three years costs Florida taxpayers more than $58,000. If that same low-level offender was granted access to a work-release program, the cost to the taxpayers would be less than $20,000. In addition, we have previously mentioned that lengthy incarceration terms for low-level offenders do far less to reduce recidivism than alternative forms of accountability do.

Florida lawmakers must look long and hard at why they are choosing to enforce strict mandatory minimums for low-level offenders when alternatives cost less and do more for the public. Why Florida has yet to embrace a necessary policy shift is a frustrating question indeed.

Source: Miami Herald, “Push for leniency in drug sentencing has been a hard sell in Florida,” Mary Ellen Klas, Aug. 18, 2013