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Greg Newburn, Sal Nuzzo: Nothing to fear from Florida First Step Act

The most important element of the Florida First Step Act is long overdue sentencing reform.

The “Florida First Step Act” — a bill modeled after federal legislation recently signed into law by President Donald Trump — is a bipartisan bill that makes modest but meaningful improvements to Florida’s broken criminal justice system.

The proposed legislation is ready for a vote in the Senate, so some special interests that benefit from the status quo have begun their annual ritual of trying to scare lawmakers away from approving it. The smart move would be to ignore them.

Here’s why.

The most important element of the Florida First Step Act is long overdue sentencing reform. For example, the bill creates a “safety valve,” which would allow for departures from mandatory minimums in drug sentencing under certain narrowly defined circumstances.

The bill retains mandatory minimums for defendants who used or threatened violence, used a deadly weapon, or participated in an ongoing drug conspiracy, as well as anyone with a violent criminal history.

Nevertheless, some are telling legislators this modest reform will lead us back to high crime rates. They offer no evidence for their claims, but their argument’s flimsy foundation hasn’t deterred them.

Demagoguery has long been a staple in the Anti-Reformers’ catalog; when New York moved to repeal its “Rockefeller Drug Laws” — the mandatory minimum laws on which Florida’s drug sentencing laws were modeled — opponents of that reform made many claims that turned out not to be true. For example, one said the changes “ignore the advice of district attorneys and law-enforcement officials … and protect drug dealers.” Another argued reform would “turn back years of hard work and progress we have made in combating crime … and will increase costs for the state by untold millions of dollars.” Yet another predicted reform would lead to “a public safety disaster.”

Lawmakers disregarded these predictions and followed the evidence instead. They were right to do so. A decade since New York repealed its mandatory minimum drug laws, drug arrests and prison commitments are down, and New York’s prison population has fallen enough that the state has closed at least 18 prisons, converting one to a center for crime victim support and re-entry services. More importantly, the state’s crime rate fell 41 percent between 2009 and 2016.

Significantly, drug abuse has not spiraled out of control, either. In fact, since the repeal, New York’s fatal drug overdose rate has been nearly 20 percent lower than the national rate. So much for the pessimists’ prognostications.

We don’t have to travel that far north to find sentencing reform success, however. Florida’s neighboring states — including Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama — all allow sentencing discretion in drug cases, and each has seen major crime reductions and budget savings.

Texas has never used mandatory minimum drug laws, and, like Florida, is enjoying a near 50-year crime low. Crime continues to fall in Louisiana, too, after repealing its mandatory minimum drug laws in 2017.

In fact, one can find strong evidence of sentencing reform right here in the Sunshine State. In 1993, the legislature (including a Republican-led Senate) repealed most of Florida’s mandatory minimum laws.

The usual suspects warned of an imminent crime wave. The Legislature followed the evidence instead.

Over the next five years, the number of admissions to Florida prisons with mandatory sentences fell 56 percent, while Florida’s crime rate fell nearly 26 percent. In fact, Florida’s 1998 crime rate was its lowest in 20 years. The data are irrefutable: repealing mandatory minimums did not cause crime to rise in Florida.

When data supports reform, though, special interests turn to fearmongering. So, every year, after legislators file bills intended to fix Florida’s sentencing laws, the opposition issues the same stale warnings.

But, with just under two weeks left to go in Session, lawmakers should ignore baseless alarmism and recognize that good public policy relies on evidence. And that evidence shows conclusively that mandatory minimum drug laws don’t work.

We urge the legislature to pass the Florida First Step Act.

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Greg Newburn is Florida state director at FAMM. Sal Nuzzo is vice president of policy at the James Madison Institute.

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