The human and financial cost of mandatory sentencing laws

Courts across Florida convict people for drug trafficking who do not sell drugs. Watchdogs, judges, and lawmakers from both parties say it is part of a problem that strains prisons and costs taxpayers. 

For example, William Forrester is serving a sentence he did not deserve, according to the same judge who sentenced him. Forrester, a 62-year-old man from Bradenton, discovered he had cancer 16 years ago and doctors removed much of his lung. 

“I was in so much pain, because they had to go in two more times. I spent almost the whole year in the hospital,” he recalled. 

Forrester said doctors responded by overprescribing pain pills until he was hooked. 

"I would go get my prescriptions filled and the methadone came in jugs…and I would take 12…ridiculous amounts of medications.”  

Ten years ago, one of the prescriptions ran out. The pharmacy would not refill it because he had taken too many and ran out early. Forrester committed his crime by forging a prescription to carry him through until the next month. 

"I took the pills. They were for me,” said Forrester. “About three months later they came and arrested me, and she continued to fill the prescriptions after that.”

Under Florida law, that is drug trafficking -- though he never sold a pill. Also under Florida law, that is a minimum of 15 years in prison. The judge called the sentence excessive but said his hands were tied. 

“That removes all discretion from the judge, so it doesn’t allow him to look at the underlying facts of the case,” complained GOP state senator Jeff Brandes, who has strongly criticized Florida’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws intended to target violent criminals and drug kingpins. 

“They were legislating by slogans and you heard this ‘85-percent,’ ‘10-20-life,’ ‘three strikes you’re out.’

Those types of slogans got into the lexicon and were easy for legislators to push forward,” said Sen. Brandes. “That is probably good marketing. But its horrible public policy, because it removes all discretion.”

William Forrester is not alone. Mary Nowling is a disabled 66-year-old grandmother in a Hernando County prison who suffers from anxiety, depression and a back condition. After she lost her home, she sold a bottle of her pain pills to an informant. She also received a 15-year sentence. 

Like many snared for drug trafficking, she is a relatively low-level offender who says she is mentally ill, disabled and poor. 

“They’re taking mothers away from kids. They might be poor mothers but that is still better than no mother,” said Nowling. “The legislators who make these laws they don’t realize what they’re doing.”

Conservative watchdogs including the Reason Foundation -- which previously examined the Forrester and Nowling cases, among others -- and progressive watchdogs want reform. Republican and Democratic lawmakers in the legislatures have embraced calls for reform. However, the bill to give judges more discretion failed in the 2018 legislative session. 

Senator Brandes is continuing the push for change in 2019. 

“Largely they failed because there are still groups out there that want to maintain all the power with the prosecutors,” he said.  “So for me it’s allowing judges to have the ability to go below the mandatory minimum when the case deserves it, when justice demands it,” he said. 

William Forrester's judge noted taxpayers are spending more than $58 a day to keep him in prison. 

A state report in 2012 found most of Florida's oxy and hydrocodone trafficking convictions were for the equivalent of one or two prescriptions. 

In 2014, the state raised the number of pills needed to trigger a trafficking arrest. However, the changes do not apply to those who were already convicted.