Mandatory minimum sentencing forces judges into decisions

ABC News Feb. 18 highlighted the regret expressed by Paul Cassell, a retired federal judge who was forced to impose a 55-year prison sentence on a 24-year-old male for nonviolent drug bust after prosecutors filed certain charges against him.

During the broadcast Cassell said “That wasn’t the right thing to do. The system forced me to do it.”

Mandatory minimum sentencing requires judges to issue minimum sentences for certain crimes.

But it’s not just a federal issue. It happens in Florida, and right here in our county.

In fact, critics of mandatory minimum sentences point to a Santa Rosa County case as an example of the unfair balance of power between prosecutors, who sometimes base their success on sending people to prison, and judges who are rendered helpless to use discretion in extenuating circumstances.

Former emergency room nurse Toni Perry, a Milton mother of four who became addicted to prescription painkillers, was charged by the First Judicial Circuit State Attorney’s Office with trafficking because of the number of pills she fraudulently acquired to fuel her addiction. That charge mandates a three-year mandatory minimum sentence which was served at facilities hours away from Milton.

Perry’s husband has stated the prosecutor assigned to the case told him she knew his wife wasn’t trafficking and was self-medicating, but that because Toni had been a nurse an example was going to be made of her.

Despite family members pleading with the judge to allow Perry to enter a longtime rehabilitation program into which she had been accepted, her husband, Greg, said the judge stated his hands were tied because it was a mandatory minimum case.

The Perry family is now using their experience to help other families and women going through similar sentences. They actively support Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) efforts and have brought to light a similar local case.

Jennifer Perritt, who was also a nurse who fraudulently acquired prescription painkillers, is married to a former Santa Rosa Sheriff’s Office employee, who happened to be a candidate for state legislature at the time.
Although she was initially charged with offenses like Perry’s, in her case prosecutors dropped dozens of charges, ultimately eliminating Perritt from having to face the same sentence and enabling her to serve less than a year in Santa Rosa County Jail.

According to FAMM, hundreds of thousands of prisoners are serving lengthy sentences for nonviolent crimes – some spending more time behind bars than convicted murderers. FAMM, however, is making strides for reform.
During the 2014 Florida legislative session Senate Bill 360 bill was passed and signed into law, reforming Florida’s prescription drug trafficking sentencing laws, which were some of the most severe in the nation. FAMM is still working toward further reform.

That’s important because mandatory minimums yield too much power to already powerful prosecutors and force judges into imposing sentences they otherwise would not.

Mandatory minimums should be abolished to better balance out the power prosecutors hold to not only charge a citizen with a crime but impose certain sentencing for it.


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