Yesterday the Florida Senate held a meeting to discuss reducing mandatory minimum sentences as well as making possession of small amounts of marijuana a non-criminal offense. While no proposed legislation has been drafted, the proposals are all contained in the meeting packet.
Mandatory minimum sentences are a one-size-fits all solution to crime. The legislature decided to take discretion away from judges and juries, and to decide for themselves what criminal sentences would be. It’s a real embodiment of one of the worst aspects of government: lawmakers with no experience in the specifics of a scenario making blanket decisions no matter what the details may be.
Senator Jeff Brandes, one of the conservatives leading the charge on criminal justice reform, recognized the root of the problem. From the Miami Herald article linked above:
“The question for the committee is: Are we going to invest the power in judge or do we invest it in prosecutors,” … “We have judges for a reason and we should let them have an independent review of the case.”
Florida has 108 mandatory minimum laws. In defending people accused of crimes we’ve seen first-hand how prosecutors use those laws like a bludgeon, charging crimes requiring prison time when a lesser charge better fits the facts, simply in order to gain leverage to force a plea deal.
Studies show that mandatory minimums aren’t effective at deterring crime, and in fact accomplish little more than locking up non-violent offenders for long periods of time. Politicians voted for them in the past in order to appear “tough on crime” and get the support of their local police and prosecutor.
The Florida Senate’s proposals area good first step toward reversing this trend. But even if these laws are changed, more work will need to be done.