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Prison populations in Florida continue to grow

Posted on May 17, 2010 3:00 AM EST

As time passes on, the prison population in the State of Florida continues to grow. The costs are growing to astronomical numbers, while the money being used for education and construction projects continue to dwindle. Not only do the taxpayers and the citizens of Florida pay for the exorbitant costs that accompanies a growing prison population, but the defendants who are overpopulating the jails are also paying a price. In 1995, the state spent $1.6 billion running its penal system, while in 2010, the budget calls for $2.4 billing in spending. Despite the decrease in crime across the state, the prisons are being overwhelmed by two factors. The first is the growing population in Florida, while the second is the sentencing enhancements that continue to be drafted and passed by the legislature. While the crimes of cocaine trafficking, mortgage fraud, marijuana possession and aggravated assault have been on the books for many years, the legislature continues to add more offenses punishable under the penal code. While the prisons become more populated, Miami criminal lawyers have never been more busy defending their clients in state court.

Prior to the late 70's and the early 80's, the judges sitting on circuit court benches had a wide discretion in determining sentences for defendants who entered pleas or who were found guilty after trial. Under those sentencing guidelines, there were no minimum mandatory penalties, no career criminal statutes, parole existed and prisoners usually did about 25% of their sentence prior to being released. In the 1990's, the legislature took discretion regarding sentencing away from the circuit judges by implementing sentencing guidelines. With the guidelines came offense levels and the offense severity ranking chart. As time has passed, the legal reasons for sentencing departures available to judges has also been diluted. As a result of all of these changes, the State of Florida is expected to have a prison population of 115,000 by 2015. According to reports, the 20% increase in population will require the state to build nine new prisons at an estimated cost of $862 million.

The drug trafficking minimum mandatory sentences should be revisited by the legislature. The minimum mandatory sentences came to fruition in the 1980's in an effort to combat the ongoing cocaine trafficking problem in Miami that gained national attention. Not only were trafficking minimum mandatories created for cocaine, but also for heroin and other dangerous narcotics. Eventually, the legislature included man made drugs such as oxycodone in the minimum mandatory structure. Anyone in possession of in excess of 28 grams of oxycodone pills will be charged with oxycodone trafficking and is facing a 25 year minimum mandatory sentence. Until recently minimum mandatories for marijuana trafficking did not exist. Any experienced criminal attorney in Miami could guarantee a client probation no matter the amount of marijuana being trafficked. However, with the rise of the marijuana grow house, anyone in possession of more than 25 pounds of marijuana is facing at least a three year minimum mandatory.

After the trafficking minimum mandatories were created, the career criminal statutes were passed piece meal over the years. Some of the sentencing rules allowed for the doubling of prison sentences, while other statutes imposed lengthy minimum mandatory and life sentences. The law changed that set forth the premise that life meant life. Parole was no longer available, and if a defendant was sentenced to life, he or she left jail in a pine box, unless he or she was lucky enough to win some type of post-conviction relief motion or appeal. While an argument can be made for the enhanced sentenced handed down for violent crimes, out of fairness to some defendants, and in an effort to decrease the state's budget, some of the minimum mandatory laws need to be relaxed and more discretion must be given to our elected judiciary.

Florida Prison Population: Growing by Leaps and Bounds, The Ledger.com, May 17, 2010.
Categories: Sentencing