Mandatory minimums are some of the most draconian policies adopted by both state and federal governments. And while we often talk about them as being associated with drug-related infractions, they are also applied to other types of crime. Florida, a state that has rolled some of its harshest mandatory minimum sentencing laws recently, is still housing people for years, and sometimes decades, who would no longer receive the same type of sentences now that the laws have changed.
In November, Floridians could get to change that thanks to Amendment 11, a referendum asking voters if state legislature should retroactively change sentencing laws. But only if the Florida Supreme Court reverses a state judge’s decision to remove the referendum from the ballot alleging the amendment was unconstitutional.
If Amendment 11 does make to the ballot and residents vote “Yes” on it, proponents argue, the legislature would be allowed to go around the savings clause, a 100-year-old provision that keeps lawmakers from changing sentencing laws impacting prisoners who were convicted in the past. To prisoners who remain stuck in jail for unnecessarily long sentences, this could mean freedom at last. And to Florida’s taxpayer, that means less money going toward housing and feeding these inmates for several more years.
According to Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM)’s director of state policy, Greg Newburn, Florida voters who care about fairness should vote for Amendment 11.
As an organization that seeks to show how mandatory minimums destroy entire families while harshly penalizing people who may not deserve these sentences, FAMM believes that “the stories that we use to help change the laws, the people who are living those stories day-to-day, shouldn’t be left behind by the law,” Newburn explained.
One example of Florida’s mandatory minimum laws and their consequences is 40-year-old Cynthia Powell, who was arrested and sentenced to a mandatory 25 years in prison in 2003 for selling a bottle of pills to an undercover cop. The non-violent, low-level offender had no prior criminal record and yet, she is rotting in jail for a drug-related offense that produced no victims.
James Caruso went through a similar experience, being arrested in 2002 and sentenced to a mandatory 25 years in prison for trafficking hydrocodone.
In 2014, Florida lawmakers passed legislation that changed the rules so that harsh mandatory minimums were not triggered by all cases of opioid-related crimes. However, people like Powell and Caruso were not able to benefit from the rule change because of the savings clause.
“Under the new law I would be subject to a seven-year prison term and $100,000 fine,” Caruso said then. “I have served more than twice that and owe five-times the fine. A person in Florida could literally do the exact same thing today that I did in 2002 and still get out of prison before me.”
One of the consequences of the drug war is the ongoing targeting of poor men and women who often engage in illicit drug sales to make ends meet. Mandatory minimums add an extra layer of injustice to this policy, as it often hands life terms to otherwise non-violent, harmless individuals.
While Amendment 11 is a step in the right direction, we will only have true fairness once we bring the war on drugs to an end.