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Florida Drug Law Reform Update (03-09-02)

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Posted On: March 09, 2002          Updated On: March 09, 2002
© Terence T. Gorski, 2001

TREATMENT PROPOSAL FOR 
FLORIDA DRUG OFFENDERS SPARKS DEBATE

By Mary Kelli Bridges, Naples Daily News
March 04, 2002

A proposal that would make treatment instead of criminal sanctions for first- and second-time drug offenders a constitutional right is getting strong opposition from law enforcement.

The California-based Campaign for New Drug Policies, known locally as the Florida Campaign for New Drug Policies, filed a petition last year to get a proposed constitutional amendment on November's ballot that, if passed, would allow some drug defendants the option of avoiding court.

The basic idea of the amendment would be that a first-or second-time offender charged or convicted of possessing or purchasing drugs could choose to be assessed and then undergo up to 18 months of therapy to help kick the drug abuse problem. When the program is completed or the 18 months is over, there would be no prosecution or sentencing.  

People charged with violent crimes or those who have been convicted or imprisoned for violent crimes in the past five years wouldn't be eligible for the treatment option.

Already, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association and Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association have issued written oppositions to the proposal.

"In essence, it's an attempt to legalize drugs," said State Attorney Joe D'Alessandro, chief prosecutor for the 20th Judicial Circuit.

Though D'Alessandro said he thought treatment for drug users is the ultimate answer for those with drug problems, he said the proposed constitutional amendment isn't.

He's not alone.

Lee County Sheriff Rod Shoap said it should be up to a judge -- not a defendant -- to determine if a person should get treatment instead of a sentence in criminal court.  

A judge has access to presentencing investigations for defendants, which can give a more detailed glance into a defendant's background. The presentencing investigation is an important tool, Shoap said, in helping to determine how well treatment might work for each person.

"Once he has the (presentencing investigations), the judge can decide," Shoap said.

Shoap also said treatment is essential in fighting drugs. He said that's why his agency has expanded its Drug Abuse Resistance Education, commonly known as DARE, from fifth grade to include seventh-grade students as well.

He's also in the process of starting a mentoring program in the schools that would help focus on drug problems, he said.

"There's this other whole side to fighting drugs other than arrest," Shoap said.

Law enforcement officials said prison isn't a common sanction for first-time drug offenders anyway.  

In an opposition paper from the FDLE, the agency cites statistics from the Department of Corrections that, of the 1,555 inmates in prison for drug possession on July 31, none were first-time offenders.

The report also states the initiative could dilute the effectiveness of drug courts started throughout the state, including ones in Lee and Collier counties, by taking money away from drug courts and using them for the other treatment.

While the people behind the proposed amendment said they aren't against drug courts, they argue that option isn't enough.

"Our only criticism is it's a small system that hasn't grown to meet enough people," said Dave Fratello with the Campaign for New Drug Policies.

Fratello said similar measures to the proposed amendment have begun in California and Arizona, though not identical to the proposition in Florida.

Fratello said the effort to make treatment a constitutional right instead of a statutory law started because politicians didn't want to take a chance on such a concept.

"I view this as a symptom of a failed political system when it comes to drugs," he said.

It would be up to the Legislature to implement the amendment with detailed statutes and it would also be mostly up to the state to fund the treatment, though Fratello said defendants would pay for some of the bill if they could afford it.

When Miami attorney Sydney Smith started practicing law a decade ago, he was a public defender handling a lot of juvenile cases. Now he's in private practice and attempting to keep defendants off Death Row.

Treatment for drug offenders is a passion of Smith's, who said Florida isn't doing enough to stop those same juveniles he was seeing years ago from getting deeper into the criminal system.

"They're the same people walking down this horrible path to the electric chair in some cases," Smith said.

He said the initial cost to the state for the proposal would be worth it, considering the money Florida would later save in its number of prison beds.

Smith said it's virtually undisputed that drug programs work, but said treatment is saved for the well-connected or the wealthy more often than for those with money problems.

"If it's a statistic, it's very easy to forget these are human beings," he said.

Fratello said he would need about 450,000 signatures and be able to survive a review by the Florida Supreme Court to get on the ballot in November.

Author: Mary Kelli Bridges, Naples Daily News, 03-04-02

http://www.mapinc.org/dare.htm (D.A.R.E.)
http://www.mapinc.org/rehab.htm (Treatment)

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