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Alternative Sentencing in Florida Drug Cases

No matter how strong Florida’s public policy favors abstinence from illicit drug abuse, the sad fact remains that people will continue to use drugs. The question that arises is not whether Florida’s public policy is sound, but what are the appropriate means to achieve that laudable goal? Jail has never been the answer for crimes relating to drug possession. Notwithstanding the failures, behavior caused by drug abuse hurts people. Drug abuse was once described as a victimless crime. We know that is untrue. People addicted to drugs will steal, engage in prostitution, and break into houses, for example, to steal to get money to feed their disease.

Florida’s narcotics prohibition persists despite rising levels of drug abuse in the state. The notion that prohibition will eradicate drug abuse failed, as did the probation against alcohol in the early twentieth century in the United States. The idea that a person should be jailed for simply possessing, rather than distributing, selling, or trafficking in illegal narcotics, is outmoded and unrealistic. People jailed for narcotics possession might be forced to abstain from drugs. However, these individuals will need skills to cope with life without drugs after their release. Relapse in those instances is virtually certain. Hopefully, treatment will show the drug-addicted person how to live without using drugs.

Criminal justice reformers in the U.S. forcefully advocate changing the way drug crimes are punished in court. Reformers push for rehabilitation instead of incarceration. Change is slow. The tradition of our criminal justice system dates back over one thousand years to Europe, where the government took away people’s freedom as a means to punish the offender and, through incarceration, deter future criminal conduct. Times however, are changing.

Alternative sentencing for drug crimes enjoys broader acceptance and appeal in Florida courts. Instead of throwing a person in jail, courts will now consider terms of probation replete with alternative sentencing structures to jail or prison such as:

  • Mandatory drug treatment programs, some of which could be on an inpatient basis,
  • Mandatory drug counseling,
  • Weekly attendance in Drug Court,
  • Substance abuse or misuse counseling,
  • Drug testing,
  • Community service, and
  • Reporting to probation.

Probation is conditional release back into society and an alternative to incarceration. Many believe probation is a right; it is not. Probation is a privilege that could be revoked for failing to complete probation successfully. Therefore, the failure to satisfy the terms of probation could result in incarceration. Programs such as drug counseling, drug treatment, and Drug Court attendance, have proved to be successful, provided that the offender is motivated to change. If the person arrested for a petit drug crime does not want to struggle to achieve change, then change will not be made. Therefore, a judge could have no alternative except to order a person to jail or prison for failure or refusal to satisfy the terms of the person’s probation.

Lasting change could be on the horizon. The popularity of Drug Court stems from the success Drug Court attendees have in rehabilitation and reducing recidivism. People with long histories of drug abuse, or misuse as the term is now often phrased, could qualify for Drug Court. Drug Courts allow offenders to withhold adjudication of their cases in favor of working hard to beating their drug habit. Theoretically, if a drug misuser stops taking drugs, then that person will no longer need to break into cars, steal from stores, or invade homes to take money or goods to buy drugs. It follows, then, that the recidivism rate should drop if fewer property crimes are committed because fewer people are battling addiction.

Drug Courts can operate pre-trial or after the offender is released from prison. Pre-trial Drug Court attendance allows people who are first-time offenders or have little criminal history who are facing non-violent drug possession offenses or other crimes related to drug use. During the pre-trial stage, people charged with low-level drug crimes have an opportunity to attend treatment or other programs. The incentive to complete the programs includes deferred adjudication of their criminal charges or a complete dismissal of the charges.

People just coming out of jail or prison also need help. Since Florida passed a “truth in sentencing law” that requires drug offenders to serve as much as 85 percent of their sentence before being eligible for release, there has been a steady stream of recidivism. People are leaving jail or prison without the coping mechanisms necessary to survive without relying on drugs. Before Florida’s truth in sentencing laws was amended, incarcerated individuals could obtain work in the prison industries, acquire an education by getting their GED, or participating in drug treatment behind bars. Truth in sentencing removed the incentive for inmates to work toward sobriety.

Drug Courts can provide interventions that traditional criminal justice systems cannot. Drug Courts in Florida can provide access to diagnostic services, treatment providers, educational opportunities, family counseling, drug screens, oversight by a probation officer, and assistance with finding emergency or transitional housing.

Florida’s drug offender probation statute provides significant guidance to judges who want to fashion an appropriate penalty for a person suffering from drug addiction. Section 948.20 of the Florida Statutes permits chronic drug users and people who committed non-violent offenses with a score of 60 or below on the Criminal Punishment Code scoresheet an alternative to jail or prison. Section 948.20 allows a judge to withhold adjudication of an offense or find the offender guilty but sentence the offender to a term of probation and drug court. The probationary period must include a specific treatment plan designed to meet the individual’s needs. The probationary term should include treatment, along with supervision and other conditions.

The statute’s authors recognized that drug offenders would make mistakes, and they accounted for that eventuality. The statute specifically instructs probation officers to use graduated sanctions to punish probation violations rather than revocation and incarceration without giving the person another shot to make it.

Musca Law: Fighting for You

Our drug crimes defense attorneys understand the powerful hold drugs have on a person. We knew that the individual wrapped in a drug problem is not a bad person, but they need to get their fix drives them to do to things their sober selves would never do. Call Musca Law today at 888-484-5057 to get the help you need to avoid jail and beat your drug problem.

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