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Are drug sentencing laws in Florida too strict?

Last year there were over 100,000 convicted criminal offenders in Florida prisons, including private and state-run prisons. Florida's large prison population is due to a variety of factors. Sentencing laws in Florida changed dramatically between 1980 and 2000, when "truth in sentencing" laws made convicted offenders serve the fast majority of time to which they were sentenced. It is only after 85 percent of time served that a Florida inmate is eligible for parole based on good behavior. According to a 2012 Pew Center on the States study, this led to a nearly 200 percent increase in time served for drug offenders from 1990 to 2009.

Now, with crowded prison populations and better research on non-violent offenders, there is a push by some to reduce minimum mandatory sentencing, especially for drug offenses. In Florida, the debate remains active among legislators and advocates for reform.

Gubernatorial race includes discussion on criminal sentencing

In Florida's hotly contested gubernatorial race, criminal sentencing has been a prominent topic. Incumbent Governor Rick Scott has indicated in his campaign that he opposes any change to Florida's current sentencing laws. Former Governor Charlie Crist, running against Governor Scott on the Democratic ballot, has been accused of passing "the harshest marijuana laws" in the country during his previous term, at least according to Progressive Choice Florida, which has recently ran radio ads across the state.

Whoever wins the governor's race, and whatever one's own personal political beliefs, for people in Florida facing criminal drug possession or trafficking charges the debate over Florida's sentencing laws can be of the utmost importance.

Drug court programs and treatment options

Florida does have tough drug sentencing laws, although the trend is historical and larger than any one politician. For example, in Florida possession of 20 grams or less of marijuana is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Anything over 20 grams (about two-thirds of an ounce) is a felony, punishable by up to five years in jail and a $5,000 fine.

However, Florida also has "diversion" programs that can mean less jail time for some offenders.

Florida started the first drug court in Miami-Dade County in 1989. Since then the movement has gained traction across the U.S. Drug courts promote abstinence from drugs, probation and treatment in lieu of jail time. Under the program, defendants with substance abuse issues can voluntarily enter drug court, which also include frequent appearances before a judge to monitor progress.

A criminal defense attorney can help

Floridians facing drug charges face life-changing potential criminal sentences. That is why those accused need the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney. A lawyer can protect a defendant's constitutional rights in court, contest the state's evidence, and if appropriate, negotiate for a reduced sentence or charge in exchange for a guilty plea or admission to a drug treatment program.

Florida residents accused of a drug crime should contact a skilled criminal defense attorney to discuss legal options.

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