Recently, the Broward County Commissioners unanimously voted to allow for the issuance of a civil citation for possession of a small quantity of marijuana. (Sun Sentinel ) Palm Beach County recently passed similar legislation and Dade is contemplating changes to the way in the way that those who are found to be in possession of marijuana are treated as well. With this move Broward County joins the national movement in no longer treating casual pot smokers as criminals. While this is good new, marijuana has still not yet been decriminalized by the state legislature and the police will still have discretion to treat marijuana possession as a crime under some circumstances. For many years in Florida, a conviction for simple marijuana possession has had the potential to have life changing consequences for possession of a plant which is legal for recreational use in some other states. An arrest for marijuana possession needlessly disrupts and often damages the lives of people who are under most circumstances perfectly law abiding citizens of the community. A conviction for misdemeanor pot possession will disqualify a person from many employment and housing options as well as government financial aid and comes with a mandatory driver's license suspension under current Florida law. Oftentimes these consequences are avoided by obtaining a withheld of adjudication from the court of via participation in a pre-trial program such as drug court but misdemeanor drug court is a rigorous 6 month program which requires counseling and drug screening. Drug counseling for people who are convicted of marijuana offenses is a waste of valuable state resources to begin with. In fact people that are addicted to hard drugs often use marijuana to assist them with getting off of the drugs which are actually threatening their lives. Forcing people to attend drug counseling in order to keep a marijuana conviction off of their record is a waste of time for the individual and a waste of money for the state. Studies have repeatedly disproven the fact that marijuana is a "gateway drug" which predisposes a user towards experimenting with more serious mind altering substances.
Hopefully as the end of America's "marijuana prohibition" continues to develop, the state legislature will look towards making similar moves to that of the Federal government in releasing people who are imprisoned for drug offenses before the completion of their sentences. Throughout Florida people who could very well be productive members of society if given the chance are languishing away in prison for committing marijuana offenses that would have been considered legal if they had been committed at a different time and in a different state. In addition to those people, there are also many people who are unable to find employment or obtain financial aid for school because of a marijuana conviction.
South Florida, Broward County and the United States as a whole has made enormous strides in addressing disproportional sentencing for people found to be in possession of marijuana in the last several years. It is my hope that as this reform continues, that those who have had their lives stolen from them by these unfair sentencing laws be given an opportunity to rejoin society and to reclaim their futures.
Approximately 1 in 100 of America's citizens are currently incarcerated. ( Pew Center on the States ) There are 2.3 million people incarcerated in this country which is the most of any country in the world. Over the next several days the federal government will release 6,000 prisoners who have are incarcerated for drug offenses ahead of their release dates. 1,200 of those prisoners are from Florida. CNN The federal government has finally acknowledged the reality that long mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug crimes has done far more harm than good in American society. Far more lives have been destroyed and far more families have been broken by harsh sentences for drug offenses than have been damaged by the use of the drugs themselves. Violent crime has risen amongst those involved in the drug trade because being arrested for a drug offense in America can mean the end of a person's life as they know it. It follows that individuals are more willing to use force or even commit murder in order to prevent their own arrest for a drug offense than they would be if they were facing a punishment more proportional to the offense. This endangers those involved in the drug trade as well as law enforcement and the public at large. For many years the "War on Drugs" which took shape in the 1980s led legislators to pass stricter and harsher sentences for drug related offenses throughout the United States. Politicians, eager to be known as "tough on crime" have been successful running on platforms which have promised harsher penalties for drug offenders for the last 30 or so years. Earlier this year the United States Sentencing Commission announced a reduction in the penalties for most major drug crimes. Despite this positive development the Federal Bureau of Prisons reports that 48.4% of the population of federal prisoners are currently incarcerated for drug offenses. This accounts for a total of close to 94,000 people who are imprisoned in the United States for drug crimes.
Florida has very strict mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines for drug offenses and it is certainly not a coincidence that Florida currently ranks 3rd in the countr y in terms of the rate of incarceration of the state's population, coming in behind only California and Texas. In my own practice I have observed that harsh sentencing does not serve any deterrent function because most individuals who are arrested for drug crimes are completely unaware of the sentence for the crime that they are accused of and are often quire shocked to discover that they could be facing a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years in state prison for possession of a bottle of pills. Statistics provided by the Sentencing Project indicate that Florida incarcerates its citizens at a rate of 557 per 100,000 people which is 25% higher than the national average. What is particularly disturbing is that the Sentencing Project also found that in the 20 year period between 1988 and 2008 that the number of people incarcerated in Florida prisons tripled going from 33,681 to 98,192 and that 20% of those currently in prison in Florida are incarcerated for a drug crime.
The treatment community has addressed addiction problems as a disease for decades. Harsh sentences for drug offenses will not deter a person who is addicted to drugs from using them. Instead sentencing a person who may have had a treatable addiction to a lengthy prison term will subject them to many violent criminals who are housed in the same facilities and then thrust them back out into the world labelled as a "convicted felon" which often makes finding employment which provides for a livable income virtually impossible. A fundamental problem with the justice system in this country is the fact that when a person is convicted of a crime, they are labelled a criminal forever and are often forced to turn back to crime in order to provide for themselves and their families. This cycle is a needless waste of life and money as it costs almost 30,000 a year to keep someone in prison in the federal system. (CNN) The National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP ) reported that for every $1.00 which a states spends on a drug court program that they save the taxpayers an average of $3.36 in criminal justice costs alone and further 75% of those who completed a drug court program remained arrest free for 2 years following graduation.
Because of South Florida's history as a port destination for drug importation from South America, the Florida legislature passed very strict sentencing guidelines for many drug offenses as the "War on Drugs" took shape in the United States. Now that the Federal government has conceded that long mandatory prison sentences for drug offenses does more harm to society than good, it is time for Florida begin reforming the states drug laws. As a state with a history of being on the forefront of the war on drugs Florida should lead the way in reforming its drugs laws so that lives, money and resources are no longer needlessly wasted on such a large scale.
Many of the clients who come into my law office are struggling to fully grasp the full value of what an experienced and dedicated private criminal defense attorney can do for them. People who are charged with minor offenses are often tempted to go to court without an attorney in order to save them the expense of having to hire an attorney. By the same token, many people who are arrested for more serious crimes may consider having the public defender's office appointed to represent them because they do not want to make the substantial financial commitment that is often required in order to obtain private legal representation for those types of cases. What many people do not realize unfortunately is that by retaining an experienced and dedicated criminal defense attorney they are making a direct investment into their own future and that of those who depend on them.
Any lawyer will certainly tell you that it is just as good an idea to perform surgery or a medical procedure on yourself as it is to act as your own attorney. No matter what the charge and what the offer to resolve is, there are many considerations which must be taken into account when resolving a criminal case and only your lawyer is going to advise you of the wisest course of action. In addition to being much more suited to challenge the charges against you in court, a criminal defense attorney is a also a professional negotiator. Your attorney is likely going to have some familiarity with the judge and prosecutor on your case and a client who is represented by an attorney is in a much better bargaining position that someone who is representing themselves. I have also observed that individuals who attempt to deal with minor criminal charges such as Petit Theft or Shoplifting often times end up missing a court date inadvertently for one reason or another. Many people have had capias' issued and were taken into custody and spent time in jail because they missed a court date. When you hire a private criminal defense attorney he or she makes all of the court appearances on their client's behalf so missing a court date is nowhere near as likely. When an unrepresented person is not in court and their case is called by the judge, then a warrant or capias will be issued for their arrest. When a person who is represented by an attorney is not present, most judges will attempt to contact the attorney as opposed to issuing an arrest warrant.
For many people private legal representation is simply not an option because of financial limitations. For those defendants, Florida has many excellent attorneys who are employed as public defenders that can be appointed to a defendant's case if they financially qualify. I myself was once employed as an assistant public defender and I can attest that some of the finest criminal defense attorneys in the state of Florida are assistant public defenders. I can also attest to the fact that there are many unpleasant realities which hinder an assistant public defender's ability to give each and every one of his or her cases the attention that the client deserves. While I feel that I did good work for my clients as an assistant public defender, the clients which I have represented since opening my private practice have experienced a more thorough and attentive level of legal representation. This is simply a reflection of that fact that as a private criminal defense attorney, I have much more time to devote to each of my cases and many more resources available to me. I will often sit at my desk for an entire afternoon researching one specific issue in a client's case. Why? Because I can. The daily life of an assistant public defender in most busy jurisdictions does not permit for that level of individual attention to be devoted to each case. In the March 2013 Florida Bar Journal , Gideon's Promise , statewide statistics are presented demonstrating that at the time there were 1,511 assistant public defenders in the State of Florida and that those attorneys would handle about 761,689 cases which means that based upon those numbers, on the average an assistant public defender has only two hours to devote to each case.
Budgetary constraints have forced public defender's offices statewide to operate with as minimal as staff of attorneys as possible and in addition, funds are often not available to pay for investigators and court reporters which can further hinder an attorneys ability to effectively represent his or her client. There are many excellent assistant public defenders and there are some who are not as effective. By the same token, there are many excellent private criminal defense attorneys out there and some who are ineffective but being in private practice at least gives a lawyer a chance to dedicate themselves to each and every case. If a private attorney feels like they have more work than they can handle, then they are free to hire an associate or decline new cases. An assistant public defender has no such luxuries. While employed as an assistant public defender myself, I would often have multiple trials set for the same day. I can remember more than one instance where I was set to go to trial on 4 or 5 different cases on the same day. No lawyer is going to be as effective under those circumstances as they would be if they had the time and resources to labor over every minute detail of every case before it goes to trial the way that most private criminal defense lawyers do.
When selecting legal representation for a criminal case it important to take all considerations into account. Is it worth saving a few hundred or a few thousand dollars when your entire future and ability to provide for a family hangs in the balance?
While with the public defender's office in Broward County, I worked in the juvenile division and during that time I handled all juvenile cases involving minors under the age of 18 who had been arrested or charged with a crime in Broward County. During my tenure, I had the unfortunate opportunity of witnessing a number of practices which routinely occur in the juvenile justice system which would shock the conscience of the ordinary citizen. Juvenile defendants are at an enormous disadvantage from their adult counterparts from the moment that they are arrested. When a child is arrested, their families are not given the opportunity to post bond. A child's "detention status" is determined using a numeric scoring system and as a result, if a child is charged with a serious crime he or she will often be held for 21 days at a secure facility even though the substantial weight of evidence points to their innocence. So for many children in Florida, their first introduction to the criminal justice system is an expedited court hearing which occurs before the child's parents have adequate time to retain counsel and during which the State Attorney's office is required to demonstrate merely that there was probable cause for the arrest in order to hold the child in secure detention for 21 days.
And it really only gets worse from there for a child who is accused of a serious crime. Children are not entitled to a jury trial under Florida law and as a result a child's fate can often rest heavily upon the disposition of the judge who their case is assigned to. Even worse than that is the fact that Florida law permits the State Attorney's Office to be the sole decider of whether to file a child's case in juvenile court or whether to "direct file" the case to adult court. This state of the law has led to an imbalance of power for defense attorneys who are representing child defendants. Numerous times I have witnessed situations where a juvenile who is being charged with a serious crime is forced into choosing to enter into a speedy negotiated resolution which guarantees juvenile treatment of the case in exchange for accepting a Level 10 or the most restrictive program available with the other option being to take their chances and fight the case in adult court. Many children and their parents are fearful of the potential punishments and collateral consequences of taking their case to adult court and as a result are forced to accept a completely unreasonable plea bargain.
There appeared to have been some hope for a light at the end of the tunnel earlier this year however, but a Bill introduced to the state legislature seeking to change the direct filing process in an effort to restore the balance of power by making the court the ultimate decider of where a case is filed after both parties are given an opportunity to be heard did not pass through the State Senate. HB 783 also sought to prohibit the direct filing of juveniles under certain circumstances where is permissible under current law. According to an August, 2014 Human Rights watch Repor t, Florida leads the nation with the highest rate of transfers of children from the juvenile to the adult system with a rate of 164.7 per 100,000 children being direct filed and many of the children who are being sent to adult court are sent there for non-violent drug offenses.
Until the legislature does something to address the problems which HB 783 sough to address, Florida is going to continue to lead the nation in the number of children who have their cases direct filed into the adult court system and defense lawyers are going to continue to be at a substantial bargaining disadvantage. The people who are hurt most here are of course the children whose future educational and employment opportunities end up being limited as the direct result of a decision made without they nor their attorneys being given a hearing or an opportunity to be heard regarding the suitability of transfer to the adult system.