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New Florida Bills: One to Protect Addicts and One to Punish

New Florida Bills: One to Protect Addicts and One to Punish

Author: Justin Mckibben

Sometimes new policy can be good. Sometimes, not so much.

The opiate epidemic in America has hit some states with staggering rates of overdose and death. The paralyzing truth gripping the nation today is that more people are dying from drug overdose than homicides and car crashes. Heroin, fentanyl and prescription painkillers collectively decimate entire communities. People from all over are starting to push officials and lawmakers for more progressive and effective solutions.

Addiction has led to an overdose outbreak that shakes the country to the core, everywhere. Now, Florida lawmakers are pushing for new legislation to try and protect and serve those who suffer from an overdose. One of the first bills on the 2017 agenda is one that hopes to change how law enforcement treats overdose victims.

Although, another bill is trying to turn things in a very different direction.

Florida HB 61 Bill

Florida Representative Larry Lee, a Democrat from Port St. Lucie, has filed a proposal titled HB 61. If approved, this piece of reform would require several new policies for healthcare providers, starting with hospitals.

  • It would require hospitals to screen overdose victims to determine the need for additional health care services
  • Prohibits hospitals from discharging overdose patients to a detox or treatment facility until stabilized
  • Requires attending physician to attempt contact with patients primary care physician, or other treatment providers, who prescribe controlled substances to notify them of overdose
  • Requires hospital to inform medical director of treatment center (if patient is currently in treatment) of the overdose
  • Hospital must inform overdose victim’s family or emergency contact of overdose
  • Must inform contacts what drugs they suspect to have caused overdose
  • Attending physician must provide list of drug treatment providers and information about Florida’s Marchman act and Backer act in case the family or contact wishes to seek legal action to protect the addict

The Big Change in HB 61

Lastly, what is probably the most progressive part of this legislation, is the HB 61 bill would prohibit criminal charges from police officers and prosecutors against the overdose victim for possession of any drugs found on them during the incident.

This final aspect of HB 61 this writer thinks is a big deal, because from personal experience I have seen and heard many stories of individuals not calling for help in the event of an overdose out of fear of prosecution. In some cases people actually die because of the fear of criminal punishment. Adding this kind of measure to the bill is an attempt at eliminating the loss of life due to fear of discrimination. Even if it is not a perfect system, this kind of reform takes first responders and law enforcement a step closer to dealing with addicts who are fighting a fatal illness like sick people instead of criminals.

Florida SB 150 Bill Attacks Fentanyl

From across the aisle we see another push from Republican Senator Greg Steube from Sarasota. The question is, will this push go in the right direction? On December 12, he introduced bill SB 150. This is set to be a direct attack on fentanyl.

For those who are not yet familiar, fentanyl is an incredibly powerful, and lethal, opioid painkiller. It’s medical use is to sedate surgical patients and relieve chronic pain. However, being several times more powerful than heroin, it has crept into the illicit drug trade in various parts of the country. And with its arrival also came a horrifying increase in overdose and death.

This proposal means to make 4 grams or more of fentanyl a first-degree felony through:

  • Manufacturing
  • Selling
  • Buying

November 20, the Palm Beach Post released an analysis of people who died in 2015 from heroin-related overdoses. Out of the 216 individuals profiled in this report, 42% of the cases were found to involve fentanyl. So of course, with Steube coming from a district hit particularly hard by the opiate epidemic, it is logical to want to do everything you can to cut the flow of fentanyl off.

Yet, some say that this kind of strategy is too close to the concept of mandatory minimums.

Is SB 150 Too Close to Mandatory Minimums?

For those who need more clarification, mandatory minimum sentencing laws were a “one-size-fits-all” strategy implemented originally back in 1951 against marijuana, then repealed in the 1970s, and refined in 1986. In 1973, New York State enacted mandatory minimums of 15 years to life for possession of more than 4 ounces of any hard drug.

The idea is that regardless of the individual or the circumstances that a certain crime will have an inflexible punishment across the board. Ever since their introduction, criminal justice advocates have fought these laws, and they have always been surrounded by debate and controversy.

Essentially, some are already saying that SB 150 will ruthlessly make addicts into victims of the already overpopulated prison system. To be clear and fair- the bill does not seem to directly require a specific prison sentence like mandatory minimums, but it’s similar in that it treats every issue related to fentanyl the same.

The issue has already been argued time and time again that non-violent low-level drug offenders have spent excessive amounts of time in prison for possession of a substance. In some cases, an individual will do more time behind bars for possessing a large quantity of drugs than someone who has actually killed someone. Some have come to the conclusion that this tactic just doesn’t work.

The fear with SB 150 is not about the manufacturers or the dealers as much as it is for the consumers. Sometimes individuals purchase drugs on the street believing it to be heroin or another substance without even knowing there is fentanyl in it. So this bill would make first-degree felons out of desperate addicts?

What is Right?

The big question we all face at the end of the day is- what is the right thing to do? How is the best way to handle something that feels so utterly out of hand?

Well, it would seem like its time to finally let go of the archaic stigma. More states and law enforcement officials are turning to compassionate and supportive progress. Many places in America are starting to do everything they can to help people struggling with addiction to find help before it is too late. So why move backwards?

In my opinion, strictly based on what has been presented so far, SB 150 seems dangerous. There are countless advocates out there who say that intensifying the punishment is not how you deter the crime. Especially when it comes to addiction, because this kind of method still suggests it is a moral failing and not a psychological and physical illness.

HB 61 seems to be trying to call health care providers to action and add more accountability on the front lines in the fight against the overdose outbreak. At the same time it seems to move in the opposite direction of SB 150 by trying to limit the persecution of addicts. HB 61 makes more room to help preserve life and offer treatment and solutions. By now we should already know, the solution isn’t a War on Drugs, it is community and compassion.

These are some of the initial responses to recommendations recently made by the grand jury. Every day there are countless people suffering. And every day there are countless more recovering and fighting to help others recover. If you or someone you love is struggling, please call toll-free now. We want to help. You are not alone.

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The Horrors of Mandatory Minimum Sentencing

The Horrors of Mandatory Minimum Sentences

If you have never heard of mandatory minimum sentencing you may want to find out what it is. Mandatory minimum sentencing is a dark side of the criminal justice system. It has put many underserving people behind bars with ridiculously lengthy sentences. And their crimes? Well, they weren’t murder or rape or even assault.

What are mandatory minimum sentences?

Mandatory minimum sentence is a fixed sentence that a judge is forced to deliver to an individual convicted of a crime, neglecting the culpability and other mitigating factors involved in the crime. For example, people convicted of certain crimes must be punished with at least a minimum number of years in prison. In 1986, Congress enacted mandatory minimum sentencing laws to impose the mandatory minimum sentence.

Mandatory Minimum Sentencing: Why it’s unfair

These laws were enacted as a way to provide consistent, stern sentences for all offenders who commit the same crime. But instead of being helpful they have made the problem much worse. They have shifted the justice system’s attention away from deciding guilt or innocence. And instead have given prosecutors more leverage, these laws often result in different sentences for different offenders who have committed similar crimes. Essentially mandatory minimum sentencing forces judges to send offenders to jail regardless of the type of crime or individual circumstance. This takes the entire court system out of the equation. It takes the neutral judge out of the equation too and leaves the sentencing up to the prosecutor who if they wish can sentence a person to the mandatory minimum sentence. And guess who gets the most mandatory minimum sentences? Non-violent drug offenders. Does this sound fair to you?

If you are still unsure about the fairness of mandatory minimum sentencing why don’t you ask the people who were sentenced to one a few of them.

Ronald Evans, 1993, got life in prison without the possibility of parole. Why? Because he was the supposed leader of a conspiracy to distribute heroin and cocaine. Prosecutors estimated the amount of drugs he was responsible for based on testimony from his co-defendants and gave him the life sentence based on the assumption that he was the organizer of the conspiracy.

His sentence is based on an Anti-Drug Law passed by  Congress in 1988. The change was to apply the mandatory sentences of 1986, intended for high level traffickers, to anyone who was a member of a drug trafficking conspiracy. The effect of this amendment was to make everyone in a conspiracy liable for every act of the conspiracy. If a defendant is simply the doorman at a crack house, he is liable for all the crack ever sold from that crack house — indeed, he is liable for all of the crack ever sold by the organization that runs the crack house.

Telisha Watkin, 2007, got 20 years in prison for setting up a single sale of crack cocaine. Telisha Watkins arranged a cocaine deal for an old neighbor who was actually a police informant. Watkins thought the deal she was doing just involved cocaine but it turned out there was also crack in the package. So she was given the sentence that was three times as severe as it would have been if it had just been cocaine.

Watkins was more severely sentenced for crack due to the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, passed in 1986 in response to the crack cocaine epidemic of the 80’s. The law included a provision that created the disparity between federal penalties for crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses penalizing the possession of an amount of crack 100 times smaller than the amount of cocaine that would lead to a penalty for possession of powder cocaine. For three decades, those who were arrested for possessing crack cocaine faced much more severe penalties than those in possession of powder cocaine. In 2010, after many years of advocacy groups trying to overturn the legistlation and faced with overwhelming evidence that crack cocaine is no more addictive than powder cocaine, the Fair Sentancing Act was signed into law by President Obama. The law reduced the disparity between the amount of crack cocaine and powder cocaine needed to trigger certain United States federal criminal penalties from a 100:1 weight ratio to an 18:1 weight ratio and eliminated the five-year mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine, among other provisions.

Timothy Tyler got a life sentence for distributing LSD when he was 25 after struggling with mental illness and drug addiction. Tyler got hooked on LSD himself when touring with the Grateful Dead after high school. After he was arrested for selling drugs with his father in 1992, a Florida judge was forced to give him the life sentence because he’d already been caught selling LSD twice before. Both of his prior convictions resulted in probation though.

Tyler was also a victim of draconion drug laws enacted in the 80’s. Congress enacted  “three strikes and you’re out” laws, and many states followed suit with similar laws. These laws mandate that people with two prior felony convictions serve a life sentence for a third.

Thankfully someone has recognized the ridiculous and totally unreasonable mandatory minimum sentences, enter in, Eric Holder.

“Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason,” Holder told the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates in San Francisco. Although he said the United States should not abandon being tough on crime, Holder embraced steps to address “shameful” racial disparities in sentencing, the budgetary strains of overpopulated prisons and policies for incarceration that punish and rehabilitate, “not merely to warehouse and forget.” The idea behind Holder’s plan is to scale back prosecution for certain drug offenders — those with no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs or cartels. He said they would no longer be charged with offenses that “impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences.” They now “will be charged with offenses for which the accompanying sentences are better suited to their individual conduct, rather than excessive prison terms more appropriate for violent criminals or drug kingpins.” Holder also will be lessening the use of mandatory minimums sentences that require a “one-size-fits-all” punishment for those convicted of federal and state crimes.

And with that hopefully sooner rather than later we will see the end of small time drug offenders filling our jails and prisons unfairly. Hopefully the people who need it will be able to get some kind of drug treatment instead of severe prison time. If you or someone you know is in need of drug treatment, we can help! Give us a call at 800-951-6135.

 

Sources:

 

http://www.cnn.com/2013/08/12/politics/holder-mandatory-minimums/index.html

http://www.businessinsider.com/10-most-outrageous-mandatory-minimum-2013-4?op=1

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