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Crime and Sentencing 10-20-Life Felons

Government report

By: Florida Department of Corrections

Date: August 2005

Source: Florida Department of Corrections. "10-20-Life Prisoners Sentenced to Florida's Prisons." August 2005. 〈http://www.dc.state.fl.us/pub/10-20-life/index.html〉 (accessed February 8, 2006).

About the Author: This report was created by the Florida Department of Corrections under the direction of Governor Jeb Bush, Lt. Governor Toni Jennings, and Secretary James V. Crosby, Jr. The Florida Department of Corrections is responsible for the administration of all correctional sentences in the state of Florida and for the operation and maintenance of Florida's prisons.

INTRODUCTION

In 1999 the Florida Legislature enacted one of the toughest gun-crime laws in the United States, the 10-20-Life law. Proposed by Governor Jeb Bush, 10-20-Life mandates fixed minimum sentences for felony offenses committed with a firearm. The law provides for a mandatory minimum sentence of ten years for producing a firearm during the commission of an offense, twenty years for firing the gun, and twenty-five years to life for injuring or killing an individual by firing the gun. Additionally, under this legislation mere possession or ownership of a firearm by a convicted felon is also subject to a mandatory minimum sentence of 3 years in prison. Since its inception in 1999, more than four thousand offenders have been sentenced under Florida's 10-20-Life law.

The excerpt below is taken from a complete statistical report on the impact of Florida's 10-20-Life legislation on correctional sentences.

PRIMARY SOURCE

10-20-LIFE PRISONERS SENTENCED TO FLORIDA'S PRISONS

Maximum Prison Sentence Length

The maximum (total) sentence received may be greater than the longest mandatory 10-20-Life sentence imposed for offenders. For example, 154 felons whose longest 10-20-Life mandatory was 10 years received total sentences of life in prison. In many cases, the longer total sentence reflects these felons' more serious criminal histories.

Three-fifths (60.6%) of those convicted as felons possessing guns received a total sentence of 3 years, the same length as the mandatory minimum sentence imposed under 10-20-Life; but 11.5% (221 of 1,914) received a total sentence of 10 years or longer.

Almost three-fourths (71.6%) of felons who pulled a gun, but did not fire it (10-year mandatory) received total sentences of at least 10 years and less than 20 years; but one-fifth (20.7%) received a total sentence of 25 years or longer, including 154 (9.4%) who were sentenced to life in prison.

About three-fifths (61.2%) of felons who fired a gun without causing injury or death (20-year mandatory) received total sentences of at least 20 years and less than 25 years; and almost two-fifths (38.8%) received total sentences of 25 years or longer, including 26 (12.9%) who were sentenced to life in prison.

More than two-fifths (45.1%) of felons who injured or killed a victim using a gun (25-year to life mandatory) were sentenced to life in prison; and more than half (54.9%) received total sentences of 25 years of longer.

Maximum prison sentence length
Maximum mandatory sentence Total
3 yr 10 yr 20 yr 25-Life
Under 300000
31,1590001,159
3+ to 9+534000534
10 to 19+1831,171001,354
20 to 24+121271230262
25+2618452217479
Life015426178358
Total1,9141,6362013954,146

SIGNIFICANCE

Within its longer report, the Florida Department of Corrections claims that the 10-20-Life law has contributed to a thirty-percent decrease in rates of violent gun crime in the six years since it was enacted. Careful consideration of this claim reveals that the impact is in fact not as great as they suggest.

The reported number of violent offences involving a firearm in 1998 was 31,643 while in 2002, the number was 26,346: a decrease of 5,297. The claimed "thirty percent decline" was in fact calculated by assuming that the crime rate would have remained at the 1998 level in subsequent years and by adding up the sum total of crimes "not committed" due to the 10-20-Life law. Thus, the Florida Department of Corrections claims that the 10-20-Life law has prevented thirty percent of the crimes that would have been committed if this legislation did not exist.

Consideration of trends in violent gun crime and violent crime in general in Florida, however, shows that these rates have been dropping since the late 1980s, a full decade before the enactment of this legislation. Further, the number of violent crimes committed with a firearm actually increased slightly from 2000 to 2002 during the 10-20-Life era before resuming its downward trend. The decrease in violent gun crime from 1998 to 2004 does not necessarily indicate the success of the 10-20-Life legislation so much as a continuation of the earlier downward trend in violent crime rates. Despite the 2.7-million-dollar public service campaign that warned would-be criminals, "Use a gun and you're done," there is no evidence of a significant decrease in crime attributable to the 10-20-Life law.

The implications of the 10-20-Life legislation for the Florida correctional system are great. The penalties required by this law are the minimum that may be imposed and much lengthier sentences are often handed down as consecutive sentences may be given for multiple convictions. The existence of a previous criminal record may also prompt a judge to order a prison term that is longer than the mandatory minimum sentence. As indicated by the statistics above, this judicial discretion to order sentences that are longer than the mandatory minimum is frequently exercised. Nearly forty percent of individuals subject to a mandatory minimum sentence of three years were sentenced to more than the minimum. Twenty-eight percent of convictions subject to a ten-year minimum sentence received a sentence of more than twenty years. Given that the legislation does not appear to have a significant deterrent effect, and much longer sentences are being handed down, one can expect to see an exponential increase in the number of individuals incarcerated for a lengthy period or for life in Florida. This trend toward longer periods of incarceration is certain to necessitate the construction of additional and larger prison facilities to accommodate the growth of the prison population.

The "get tough on crime" approach remains popular among Republican policy makers, despite increasing evidence that harsher sentences have little influence on the reduction of crime rates. Studies on similar forms of legislation in both Washington State and in California, known as "Three Strikes" legislation, have indicated that such laws are largely ineffective in reducing crime rates or decreasing the cost of enforcement: court costs as well as the number of those incarcerated are skyrocketing.

Burgeoning prison populations are costing taxpayers a hefty annual sum with an average price tag of more than $25,000 per inmate, per year. The United States spends tens of billions of dollars every year on criminal justice and corrections, yet for all this outlay of tax dollars, the U.S. maintains the highest rate of incarceration in the world and one of the highest crime rates per capita.

However, the implementation of lengthier sentences and the perception of a tough justice system is one that resonates with U.S. citizens who are increasingly fearful of crime and victimization and thus see imprisonment as a quick and viable solution. Clearly the 10-20-Life legislation and similar types of laws across the United States are direct policy responses to public concern about violent crime. However, a brief cost-benefit analysis of this type of legislation reveals that the expense of administering and enforcing these laws yields little result beyond the illusion of security for the American public.

FURTHER RESOURCES

Periodicals

Kovandzic, Tomislav V., John J. Sloan, and Lynne M. Vieraitis. "' Striking Out' as Crime Reduction Policy: The Impact of 'Three Strikes' Laws on Crime Rates in U.S. Cities." Justice Quarterly. 21, 2 (2004): 207-239.

Piquero, Alex. "Reliable Information and Rational Policy Decisions: Does Gun Research Fit the Bill?" Criminology and Public Policy 4, 4 (2005): 779-798.

Web sites

Florida Department of Law Enforcement. "Firearm Involved Violent Crimes." 〈http://www.fdle.state.fl.us/FSAC/Crime_Trends/violent/Reg_FA_2004.ppt〉 (accessed February 28, 2006).

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Crime and Sentencing 10-20-Life Felons

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