Florida taxpayers spent over $2.2 billion on the state’s correctional system and its more than 100,000 prison inmates last year. Nearly half, 46.7 percent, of state prison inmates are serving sentences for nonviolent offenses. The state’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws and restrictions on early release mean more of those prisoners are serving longer prison sentences than ever before.
A new Reason Foundation study explains how eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, increasing the thresholds needed to trigger certain drug trafficking offenses, reforming habitual offender laws, and allowing inmates to earn more incentive gain-time to speed up their release can give judges the ability to sentence serious criminals to long sentences while reducing the number of nonviolent citizens serving lengthy, costly prison sentences for minor infractions.
“Florida’s drug trafficking laws require judges to sentence individuals convicted of possessing just 28 5 milligram Percocet pills to at least seven years in prison. Increase that number to 50 5mg Percocet pills and the mandatory sentence is a minimum of 15 years in state prison,” said Lauren Galik, author of the report and director of criminal justice reform at Reason Foundation. “The state’s unfair and overzealous efforts to be tough on crime caused the prison population to increase 11-fold between 1970 and 2014, while the state population roughly tripled over that same period. There’s little evidence that Florida’s harsh sentencing laws have helped reduce violent crime. It’s time for a common-sense approach to criminal justice that focuses resources on the violent criminals who pose the biggest risk to society.”
“Our prisons are overcrowded and all too often filled with a disproportionate number of nonviolent offenders. Now is the time to grapple with what can be done to address the problems which are costing our society in wasted money and ruined lives,” said Sal Nuzzo, vice president of policy at The James Madison Institute. “With this study, Lauren Galik shows the ways in which the Sunshine State can start to become an effective leader when it comes to reform of its criminal justice system. This report comes at a particularly opportune moment, as a renaissance is beginning to take place across the country with respect to the public’s attitudes toward the criminal justice arena. This evolution, which is sweeping typically hardline conservative states such as Texas and Utah, is turning the old notion of ‘tough on crime’ on its head and leading to important reforms.”
Florida’s habitual offender laws were meant to target violent career criminals. Unfortunately, far too many nonviolent offenders are being locked away for life at great expense to taxpayers. There are currently 105 Florida inmates sentenced to life in prison without parole for committing a nonviolent offense under habitual offender laws.
“Allowing nonviolent offenders to be sentenced to life without parole under habitual offender laws is costly, inefficient, and unfair – as the punishment rarely fits the crimes these nonviolent offenders have been convicted of,” Galik said.
In several states, violent criminals are required to serve 85 percent of their sentences at a minimum. In Florida, all inmates, including nonviolent offenders, are required to serve 85 percent of their sentences, which results in an expensive, aging prison population that lacks incentives to participate in rehabilitation programs.
“Research shows longer sentences don’t deter crime, they just cost taxpayers more money,” said Galik.
The study recommends replacing mandatory minimum sentences and habitual offender laws with judicial discretion. “Judges can look at a criminal’s violent past and ensure an appropriately harsh sentence is handed down,” Galik stated. “Judges in other states have the ability to override mandatory minimum sentences in certain circumstances and Florida judges should be entrusted with the same authority.”
The complete report, “The High Cost of Incarceration in Florida: Recommendations for Reform,” is available here.
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Lauren Galik, Director of Criminal Justice Reform and Study Author, Reason Foundation, (440) 309-6767
Kristen Kelley, Communications Specialist, Reason Foundation, (443) 722-5592