War on Drugs

Florida Inmates Serving Outdated Drug Sentences Released Early Following Reason Investigation

A Florida prosecutor's office reviewed the cases and agreed to resentencing for nearly two dozen inmates, calling it "a matter of fundamental fairness."


Calling it a "matter of fundamental fairness," prosecutors in Broward County, Florida, have cut deals for the early releases of 23 inmates who were serving outdated mandatory minimum sentences for opioid trafficking, including two people whose cases were profiled by Reason in a 2017 investigation.

Among those released was Cynthia Powell, who received a 25-year mandatory minimum sentence for selling a bottle of pills to an undercover police officer in 2003. Powell, a 40-year-old grandmother with no criminal record, had been set up by a confidential informant. She was the main subject of Reason's investigation, which showed that Florida's harsh opioid laws had more often than not been used to hammer low-level and first-time offenders rather than drug kingpins.

In 2014, the Florida legislature raised the thresholds to trigger mandatory minimum sentences for opioid trafficking, but those changes were not retroactive, meaning hundreds of Florida inmates like Powell and James Caruso were left in prison to serve out sentences far longer than those if they had been convicted under the current laws.

"Under the new law I would be subject to a seven-year prison term and [a] $100,000 fine," Caruso wrote in a letter to Reason from prison in 2017. "I have served more than twice that and owe five-times the fine. A person in Florida could literally do the exact same thing today that I did in 2002 and still get out of prison before me…And if you believe the police reports, I was just a lookout."

Both Powell and Caruso, whose case was not handled by the Broward State Attorney, were released early last month.

The releases were the result of an unusual partnership between the Broward County State Attorney's office, which initiated the reviews, and the Innocence Project of Florida, which reached out to defendants and defense attorneys to broker the deals.

"It was a surprising phone call," Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida, says. "It's not often the prosecutor's office calls you up and says, 'Hey, we want to work with you to get 20 some odd people out of prison.'"

But Broward chief assistant state attorney Jeff Marcus told the Miami New Times that reviewing the sentences came down to "a matter of fundamental fairness."

"The problem with these sentences was that it did not take much for pill cases to reach mandatory levels," Marcus said. "So you can have a couple of bottles of prescription pills and be up to 15 years in prison, and that is just too much. We follow the law, but sometimes the laws have been too tough, as they were in the past. This is an opportunity to correct that."

Greg Newburn, the Florida policy director of FAMM, a criminal justice advocacy group that opposes mandatory minimum sentences and featured Powell's case on its website, applauded the releases but said a legislative fix is still needed.

"We couldn't be happier that Cynthia has been given the second chance she deserves. It should have come much sooner," Newburn says. "Now, the legislature should make the 2014 sentencing reforms retroactive so other deserving people can be freed, as well."