Deadly Fentanyl Drug Ignites Senate Debate

May 3, 2017

Grappling with a deadly drug scourge across the state, Florida senators Tuesday had an impassioned debate about whether the state should require mandatory-minimum prison sentences for fentanyl trafficking.

The debate came as senators considered a bill that would impose tough criminal penalties on people who sell fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid often mixed with other drugs, such as heroin. Its potency has led to overdose deaths across Florida — and the country.

But the fentanyl issue also became wrapped in a much-broader issue about whether the state should have mandatory-minimum prison terms for drug crimes or whether judges should have more discretion in sentencing. Senate Criminal Justice Chairman Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, proposed changing the bill to give judges the ability to move away from mandatory-minimum sentences for fentanyl trafficking.

In the end, senators approved the amendment in a voice vote. But first, they weighed in on the problems fentanyl is causing in their communities --- and the effects of mandatory-minimum sentences dating back to the onslaught of crack cocaine in the 1980s.

Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said his son, a deputy sheriff, implored him to take steps to address problems with fentanyl. He argued that mandatory-minimum sentences were appropriate for fentanyl trafficking because of an epidemic that he described as a “fire out of control.”

“This is serious business, and we need the most serious response we can give it,” Baxley said.

But Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, recounted how mandatory-minimum sentences stemming from the 1980s “broke up families” and “tore up my community.” He and other senators said such sentencing can lead to young addicts going to prison and that increased rehabilitation and treatment is needed.

The bill (HB 477) would create a first-degree felony offense for trafficking in fentanyl and similar drugs, with trafficking defined as involving four grams or more.

When approved by the House last month, the bill also included mandatory-minimum sentences. It would have required a minimum of three years in prison and a $50,000 fine for people who have between four and 14 grams; a minimum of 15 years in prison and a $100,000 fine for people who have 14 to 28 grams; and a minimum of 25 years in prison and a $500,000 fine for 28 grams or more.

Under Bracy's amendment, judges would be able to “depart” from the mandatory-minimum sentences “if the court finds in giving due regard to the nature of the defendant's crime, the defendant's criminal history and character, and the defendant's chance of successful rehabilitation, there are compelling reasons on the record that imposition of the mandatory minimum is not necessary for the protection of the public.”

The Senate could vote as soon as Wednesday on the amended bill, which would then go back to House.

During the debate Tuesday, lawmakers such as Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, argued that the dangers of fentanyl justified mandatory-minimum sentences. Stargel said her daughter has lost two friends to fentanyl overdoses.

“This is a very, very serious drug, and fentanyl is killing people,” Stargel said.

But Democrats and some Republicans argued that mandatory-minimum sentences have not worked and that judges should be able to consider other options.

“We do too much punishment,” Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale, said. “We do not do enough rehabilitation.”