TAMPA – President Barack Obama is trying to right many wrongs caused by harsh punishments handed down for drug-related crimes in the 1990s by commuting a slew of sentences for non-violent drug offenders in Florida before he leaves office next year. 

Severe sentences for even the most minor of drug offenses were seen as a way to reduce the crack cocaine epidemic in Florida neighborhoods in the 1990s and the accompanying violence that came with it. As a result, though, a number of small-time drug dealers landed in jail for life while convicted murderers were long since set free.

After Congress reduced mandatory sentencing minimums in 2010, Obama began issuing clemency to those caught up in the war on drugs, including shortening sentences for 77 non-violent drug offenders in Florida, which now leads the nation in these sentence reductions.

“Empirical evidence has shown that harsher drug sentences do not reduce crime," attorney Richard Hornsby told the Florida Record recently. "For every low-level and non-violent offender arrested, another pops up to take their place. Moreover, the harsh sentences served as a drag net that cast a wide net and ensnared addicts and users who supported their habit, as opposed to actual drug dealers and traffickers. Further, it has been shown that harsh sentences break up families and contribute to a cycle of crime, especially among low-level non-violent offenders.”

In the 1990s, harsh sentences for drug-related crimes made sense as violence was escalating in the drug trade and crack cocaine was having a devastating effect on poor neighborhoods. The lengthy prison sentences were seen as a way to deter these crimes at the time, but that's no longer the case. 

“The current movement is toward treatment-based sentencing for low-level and non-violent offenders," Hornsby said. "Obviously, it will result in offenders being returned to the community rehabilitated and lessen the breakup of family units. Current evidence suggests that the various actors in the criminal justice system believe that prison sentences and scarce criminal justice resources are best spent on true drug dealers and traffickers profiting off of drugs, as opposed to low-level and non-violent offenders who may have sold drugs to support their addiction.”

Based on this new wave of sentence reductions, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida has seen more clemency cases than any other district in the country, which makes sense based on the number of drug dealers in Florida during the '90s.

In Central Florida alone, there have been 35 clemency cases since 2011.

"The Obama administration, through its clemency project, has been primarily focused on identifying past non-violent offenders who received disproportionate sentences due to the sentencing policies in place when the person was sentenced and reducing their sentence to what they would have received under current sentencing practice and policy," Hornsby said. "Given the limited time left, I expect the Obama administration to reduce several hundred more sentences, but it does not appear the administration will have enough time to identify every offender worthy of a sentencing reduction.”

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