Former SWFL Congressman Trey Radel, who has been keeping a low profile since stepping down form his elected position after a drug arrest, has recently stepped back into the spotlight for the specific purpose of addressing the harsh sentences for nonviolent drug charges, and especially minimum mandatory sentences. In his CNN article, Radel makes several points that we have expressed on Crimcourts before: that such sentences don’t treat the problem of drugs, and are wildly expensive burdens on tax payers. He makes some good points: it’s worth checking out.
Here’s some of our past articles on Minimum Mandatory sentences.
I have discussed some of the issues with minimum mandatory sentences here on Crimcourts a few times; from inequities in sentencing, to the ridiculousness of a man facing a mandatory 15-year sentence for having sex on the beach (though the prosecutor on that case agreed, and declined to proceed on the PRR designation that would have mandated the mandatory minimum). The issue has gained some national traction in political discussions, mostly as it relates to our overcrowded prison populations, including critics from both the right and left.
You run the risk of injustice when you try to apply blanket results without regard to the specifics of each case. Harsh sentences are appropriate for serious offenders, but a balance needs to be struck. Non-violent drug offenders probably don’t need decades in prison, and even young people that commit violent offenses are unlikely to be a risk to society when they become senior citizens. Reform still faces as uphill battle, as it is still politically advantageous to be tough on crime, and the prison industry is lucrative and has a powerful lobbying interest, but I am hopeful common sense will ultimately bring reason to our criminal punishment structures.
John Oliver took a look on This Week Tonight, and raises some quality, and some funny, points:
Ed Brodsky, the elected State Attorney for the circuit including Manatee County and Bradenton, announced yesterday that he will not be seeking the full 15-year prison sentence that was expected for Jose Caballero. Caballero was one half of a
Jose ‘Benny’ Caballero
couple that were convicted this week for having sex on the beach in Bradenton. Because he was released from prison within 3 years of the offense, he was facing Prison Releasee Reoffender sentence, which would have mandated the maximum 15 years, to be serve day for day (no time off for good behavior).
Apparently, Brodsky has relented, after the case brought the attention of Families Against Minimum Mandatory sentences (FAMM). As we pointed out on Crimcourts: it costs about $18,000 per year to incarcerate someone… an his full sentence could have cost taxpayers $270,000. He’s still going to be looking at some time, but thanks to some magnanimity from the prosecutor, not a full 15. The judge would not have had discretion, had the state proceeded with the PRR sentence.
I just filed a post on how Florida could learn a lesson from California’s recent decision to reexamine some of its harsh minimum mandatory sentences. Well, somebody in Tallahassee has been thinking along the same lines, and making progress, as a bill was recently approved by the Senate Criminal Justice Committee to allow judges some discretion to deviate from the harsh minimum mandatory sentences for first time offenders who are not selling the drugs in their possession. The measure would allow courts to take into account that sometimes a lengthy prison sentence is not the best way to handle someone who is suffering addiction. Proponents point out that under current law, people can be sentenced as traffickers for possession less pills than many addicts take in a day.
Opponents argue that prosecutors have the discretion to change their charges for people who are not involved in dealing, according to the News-Press. However, as a practitioner who has worked on both sides of courtroom, that usually does not happen. Prosecutors are under great pressure to NOT cut deals, especially to drug traffickers. Tough-on-crime State Attorneys like Angela Corey make it a platform to prosecute to the fullest extent of the law, and often ignore the legislature’s expectation of discretion. The reality is that sometimes the people who get deals are serious drug dealers who snitch, while addicts without the connections end up holding the bag.
The opponents are urging the lawmakers not to do away with harsh sentences, but this bill would not do that. This bill would still allow the courts to punish the dealers and pushers accordingly, but allows judges the discretion to divert addicts away from exceptionally harsh mandatory sentences in some cases. It’s really a common-sense bill, and it’s hard to logically argue against it. Kudos to the legislature for examining alternatives to a one-size-fits-all harsh sentencing structure.
California recently passed a law that will require review of nonviolent 3-strikes cases that ended in life sentences. The LA Times estimates that there are over 2000 inmates across California that will be affected by the change. Their story discussed how it’s unfolding in Los Angeles, where one judge has been assigned the review of all the local cases, to work toward consistency in the amended sentences.
I have long been a critic of automatic, overly harsh sentences. Laws that take away all discretion often lead to unjust results. The idea behind such laws is that they will be a deterrent, but the reality is that many crimes are not logically thought out. Florida used to advertise the 10-20-Life gun laws heavily, in diverse media formats. Lately, I haven’t seen any of the ‘Use a Gun and You’re Done’ commercials: which may be related to state budget constraints. Without advertising the harsh penalties, the deterrent effect is eliminated, and the penalty is just as harsh for someone unfamiliar with the law.
Unjust results frequently occur when discretion is taken away from the judges and prosecutors that handle the cases. The LA Times story tells about a 74 year-old who has served over 15 years for possessing a mere $10 worth of drugs. Florida was in the news last year on the case of Marissa Alexander, a first-time offender who fired a warning shot at her allegedly abusive husband. She didn’t hit anyone, but was convicted and the judge bound to giving her a 20-year sentence. That’s a day-for-day sentence, with no possibility of early release. That’s years more than the maximum sentence for other serious felonies, such as rape or manslaughter. Certainly, it is appropriate to severely punish certain offenses harshly, but it’s an injustice if the punishment does not fit the crime. California has exercised reason in revisiting its harsh mandatory penalties, and Florida would likely benefit by revisiting some of our minimum mandatories as well.
A Reuters story made the rounds on Facebook a few days ago, and I wanted to share it here. Quantarius Davis was involved in a series of armed robberies, and was sentenced in Federal court to almost 162 years- effectively a life sentence. While his involvement in these serious offenses warrants severe punishment, it should be noted that he didn’t shoot anyone, and nobody was killed (although his codefendant got shot in the butt by a victim.) Beyond that, Mr. Davis was only 19 years old, and has a learning disability and mental health disorder. He was not the ringleader, and has no prior record. His codefendants were sentences from 9 to 22 years.
What concerns me is that the court was not allowed to take these mitigating factors into consideration when entering sentence against him. Mandatory sentencing provisions mandated that the judge sentence him so severely, without letting the court consider whether the punishment fit the crime. I’m not saying that the punishment is not appropriate… I am saying that the court should be allowed to make a reasoned decision what is appropriate. Legislators in their desire to appear tough on crime and to hamstring judges from disproportionately lenient sentences, have mandated heavy sentences without any judicial discretion for judges to be judges.
One thing I want to make clear- the article appears to attribute the harsh sentences to Florida’s generally harsh sentencing structure. However, this case was handled in Federal Court, under Federal guidelines, and just happened to have happened in Florida. Though he could have been looking at harsh sentences in Florida as well (his discharge of a firearm during a robbery triggers a 20 year man/min).
I just want to keep the issue of taking away judicial discretion as a troubling trend. This kid is likely never getting out, and the recent decisions regarding juvenile life sentences won’t help him because he’s a year too old. Examples abound, the first that springs to mind was the mandatory sentence on the Georgia 17-year-old and the 15-year-old with whom he engaged in oral sex. That sentence was eventually reduced as disproportionate.
The Supreme Court issued several important rulings today, but the one that most impacts criminal law is the decision that bars mandatory life without parole for minors. This decision is not a surprise, as it’s in line with other recent decisions that mandate that those who commit offenses while under 18 should be treated differently. It extends the Graham v. Florida ruling, which restricts automatic life sentences for non-homicides to include homicides.
2 Key Points:
- This decision doesn’t mean that minors can’t be sentenced to life without parole. (I say minors, because sometimes minors can be treated as juveniles, but charged as adults, regardless of the infirmities of age.) It instead limits statutes from requiring automatic life sentences for minors. That is, it is unconstitutional for states to require that minors be sentenced to life without parole. It appears to leave open the possibility that states may still allow a judge to sentence them to life after review upon sentence, contrary to many headlines that I have already seen.
- This ruling will have the most effect in Florida, which has already had the greatest upheaval since the Graham decision I mentioned above. That’s because Florida leads the nation in juveniles sentenced to life for non-homicides. This FSU study is a couple of years old, but the numbers have only just started to correct since Graham. Florida’s numbers are high for several reasons. One reason is the high number of minimum/mandatory sentences in Florida, and due to the fact that it extends to felony murder cases. For instance, the 16-year-old in a car when a drug deal goes bad, or the 14-year-old whose big brother makes him a lookout for a burglary could be facing mandatory life without parole if someone is killed during the commission, even if it’s one of the criminals. Another reason is that judges in Florida are not given a cap or high-end sentencing range. This means a hanging judge can max out anyone who doesn’t take a plea bargain. Most don’t, but across the state, there are some that impose a ‘trial penalty’- a harsher sentence for exercising the constitutional right to trial.
Florida is already in the process of reviewing mandatory sentences for minors. I am generally a proponent of having some outlet so that a judge can make a review and determine what sentence is appropriate. Mandatories that allow for no discretion inherently run the risk of leading to unjust results.