Are Florida’s Mandatory Minimum Drug Sentences Too Harsh?

In the 1990s, Florida lawmakers wanted to take a stance against drug crimes. The state was emerging from a period that was filled with violence thanks to cocaine trafficking. So, Victor Crist, a state representative from Tampa, created a law that sought to clamp down on drug traffickers. The law contained what is now known as Florida’s “mandatory minimums" for drug crimes.  

Yet, as more years passed with the mandatory minimums in effect, something started to become clear: the law was doing more than locking up serious drug traffickers. People soon realized that the mandatory minimums were placing harsh prison sentences on low-level drug offenders. 

The Opioid Epidemic Exposed the Flaws of Mandatory Minimums  

On the surface, mandatory minimums seemed to be attacking the right group of criminals when Crist announced it to the Florida Legislature. 

"We're not talking about the guy who's merely carrying a few joints in his pocket," Crist told House lawmakers in February 1999. "We're talking about the person who's growing three barns full of marijuana or bringing in a boatload of cocaine." 

After the opioid epidemic hit the nation, the state began processing the real repercussions of Crist’s law. When the bill passed the Legislature with bipartisan support, they thought that the new law would help stop high-level drug lords. 

"All of a sudden regular people who had pain issues and maybe couldn't get pills or bought them on the street ... were suddenly being called 'traffickers,'" said Howard Finkelstein, the Broward County public defender, to the Tampa Bay Times. "It's almost the antithesis of what trafficking is." 

In January of 2012, the Florida Legislature researched the law, confirming that it had extended far beyond its original intentions. Its research found that the law increased the penalties for selling Vicodin and OxyContin, popular brand names for hydrocodone and oxycodone. So, the state’s prison system saw a spike of new inmates who were addicts rather than the drug lords the law was supposed to wrangle.  

The report analyzed that of 1,200 cases—74 percent of them involved someone who had never been to prison.  

The Tampa Bay Times used one case as an example of how harsh Florida drug crimes could get. After one woman—with no criminal past—sold 48 hydrocodone pills to an undercover police officer for $225. At the time, in 2013, Florida mandatory minimums called for a 15-year sentence for anyone who had possession or was selling about 22 pills worth of painkillers. Had she committed her crime in 2016, she’d be out of jail already thanks to reforms that have occurred to mandatory minimums since then. Instead, a first-time offender selling a relatively small number of drugs received a jail sentence that rivals some of the highest-level drug dealers in the nation.  

Recent Attempts to Reform Florida’s Mandatory Minimums for Drug Crimes 

In late 2019, a new bill, SB 364, entered the Florida Legislature. Its goal was to enable judges to avoid giving certain offenders less severe sentences than mandatory minimums demand. The law would allow judges to give smaller sentences for defendants who have no prior violent felony connections, who aren’t affiliated with organized crime, and who have not caused any serious injury or death among other requirements. 

“What we now know is we can divert low-level drug offenders from state prison and it won’t negatively affect public safety. In fact, it may make us safer,” Senator Rob Bradley said. “I think we can probably all agree that when it comes to how we deal with drug addiction and the criminal justice system, we can do better.” 

After passing through the state Senate unanimously, the bill reached the House in March of 2020. Here, it died in messages and is indefinitely postponed and withdrawn from consideration.  

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