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Mandatory sentencing laws have questionable merits

In light of the George Zimmerman case verdict, an onslaught of public outcry aimed against Florida’s legislative integrity has ensued.

Following the case, U.S Attorney General Eric Holder said the “Stand Your Ground” laws, which legitimize the use of firearms in the event that possessors can prove they were in fear for their lives, have “senselessly expanded the concept of self defense.”

In an attempt to draw racial contrasts to the application of “Stand Your Ground,” many Internet bloggers referenced the case of Marissa Alexander, an African-American woman from Jacksonville who received a mandatory 20-year sentence after firing a warning shot against her allegedly abusive husband.

Though her defense fell flat and the value of controversial “Stand Your Ground” laws once again came into question, Alexander’s mandatory sentencing also drew the contempt of various civil rights groups.

The merits of Florida’s mandatory sentencing law, popularly known as “10-20-Life,” are questionable in that they deny judicial flexibility to the presiding judge.

According to Florida Statute 775.087, an individual who possesses a firearm while perpetrating certain felonies must face the minimum penalty of 10 years in prison, while an individual who discharges a firearm during the commission of certain felonies must face the minimum penalty of 20 years in prison, and an individual who discharges a firearm during the commission of a crime in which death or bodily harm is inflicted must face a minimum of 25 years to life in prison.

These terms are mandated by law regardless of the severity of the felony and the power to exempt the provisions is allotted only to the prosecuting attorney. In the event of a conviction, a judge will have no other choice but to sentence all individuals to the minimum requirement.

In Alexander’s case, due to mandatory sentencing, the difference of discharging a firearm with the intent to kill and discharging a firearm with the implied purpose of warding off danger cannot be taken into consideration following a guilty verdict.

A core tenant of the common law system, in contrast to its codified civil law counterpart, is the ability of a judge to set the precedent for each case based on its unique nature. The “10-20-Life” mandatory sentencing statute severely impedes the ability of a judge to consider circumstantial evidence and extenuating conditions, essentially placating a standard that may be considered too harsh in some instances and too lenient in others.