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States start seeing the cost of harsh laws

Florida spends almost $20K per year to house prisoners like Edwards

Dec. 1, 2012
The South Bay Correctional Facility in South Bay.
The South Bay Correctional Facility in South Bay. / The Palm Beach Post

Costs of imprisonment

In the last decade, judges and policy makers nationwide have leaned toward rehabilitative drug courts, where offenders are required to attend treatment and be under close supervision, a cheaper alternative to prison that has been shown to reduce recidivism. Still, data from Florida Tax Watch shows Florida’s prison population has more than doubled since 1990.
$19,473: Cost to house a prisoner in Florida a year.
$642,609: Cost to house Michael Edwards in prison at current rate until scheduled release date of 2044.
$300M: Cost to Florida to incarcerate people

for drug offenses in 2011.
$2.4B: Cost to Florida to house more than

102,000 prisoners in fiscal year 2011.
Source: Florida Tax Watch’s 2011 review of criminal justice data, Florida Department of Corrections.


When Michael Edwards is moved to a new prison, he asks to put a note in the law library asking if anyone has heard of a 60-year sentence for two sales of cocaine.

The sales totaled about $850.

He consults other inmates on the recreation field. Some ask, did they find a gun on you? Did you shoot someone? Was anyone hurt?

His answers are no.

In two decades in prison and hours spent in law libraries, Edwards has not found another inmate with a similar sentence for his crimes.

“I’m not trying to say that I don’t deserve being punished for what I did. I do. If I’m stupid enough to do something like that, I do deserve it, especially coming out of prison. But 60 years?” Edwards said. “I figured somebody would realize I’m not that bad of person. I just had a drug problem.”

In 1994, Edwards was sentenced to 60 years in prison as a habitual offender for the cocaine sales and five years each for two possession charges, which are running concurrent, with the 60 years. He had two prior cocaine convictions among other charges on his criminal record. Free of any disciplinary action in prison since 1999, he’s become a Christian and a model prisoner. He’s now asking for the executive clemency board to consider his case.

Name of the game

Advocates who favor sentencing reform of mandatory minimum and habitual offender laws said such a sentence for a non-violent drug crime is statistically rare, but Edwards is not alone in feeling the length of the sentence does not befit the crime.

“That’s just the name of the game in the state of Florida,” said Judy Thompson, president of Forgotten Majority, a group pushing for Florida to reinstate parole. “He didn’t kill anybody or rape anybody, but, yet, you’re going to lock the man away until he dies.”

Thompson featured Edwards on the group’s website.

But the majority of Florida politicians are not pushing for sentencing reform, advocates and lawyers said. There’s not a strong lobby for prisoners.

“Who’s going to object to get tough on crime laws?” said Shannon McFee, a Naples defense attorney who does not represent Edwards. The lawyer questioned how a 60-year sentence for a relatively small amount of drugs could be morally justified.

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“We, as a society, have become willing to throw certain people away to prove a certain point to others. How inhumane,” he said. “There should always be an opportunity on offenses such as these for some reintegration into the community.”

Robert Batey, a Stetson University law professor, has become acquainted with cases like Edwards’ through his work and affiliation with Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which advocates nationally for fair sentencing laws.

“That certainly is an outlier in terms of drug sentences,” Batey said. “In almost every state, you can come up with sentences that would make your jaws drop for essentially non-violent crimes.”

Politically popular tough on crime laws adopted in the ’80s and ’90s have led to outlandish sentences, he said. States feeling the high costs of imprisonment are reconsidering. California residents recently voted to reform the harsh three-strikes law.

Last session, a proposal to change sentencing guidelines for drug trafficking stalled in the Florida Legislature, according to the Florida project of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. A proposal to allow some nonviolent offenders to move toward re-entry also died.

From prison, Edwards has written to a few lawmakers but has not received responses. Edwards believes he would have been sentenced to about four or five years under the current sentencing guidelines. Edwards’ lawyer, Baya Harrison, said there may be veracity to that, but the clear trend in the law is to stiffen punishment.

Before his trial, Edwards scored a 12- to 17-year recommended sentence, according to court transcripts. The state uses a scoresheet that figures in a defendant’s crimes and prior record to come up with sentencing guidelines.

Samantha Syoen, a state attorney’s office spokeswoman, said there have been no changes to the laws on his charges since Edwards’ convictions. The maximum for the two cocaine sales as a habitual offender still would be 60 years, she said.

Bottom line

One policy discussion, when it comes to Florida prisons, that is gaining traction is how to bring down high costs. It cost $2.4 billion to run the state’s prisons in fiscal year 2011, according to Florida TaxWatch’s Center for Smart Justice. To house Edwards from this year to his 2044 release date, it would cost more than $600,000 at the current rate of about $20,000 a year.

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The Center for Smart Justice calls for cost-effective, evidence-based reforms, including making drug courts available. Lee and Collier counties have drug courts. Collier’s court began in 1999. A year later, one started in Lee. The court targets people with a non-violent felony charge who want to get clean.

It’s hard to know if such an approach would have helped Edwards earlier in his life. He said he was never offered drug treatment as an alternative to prison.

In the last decade, policy makers in Florida and across the country have leaned toward these rehabilitative courts, where offenders are required to attend treatment and be under supervision. Shown to reduce recidivism, advocates call it a better alternative to long-term incarceration for drug abusers.

“Simply arresting and recycling people wasn’t providing good outcomes,” said Kevin Lewis, CEO of Southwest Florida Addiction Services. “We’re struggling to pay school teachers, and we can’t just continue to throw away the key on people and pretend they don’t exist.”

State Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, did not want to discuss Edwards’ case in detail. He’s in favor of finding ways to divert some non-violent drug users from incarceration and is attuned to the high cost of housing criminals.

“People give it a false dichotomy about being soft on crime, but it’s about being effective,” he said.

Prison doesn’t change people, Lee County Senior Judge Radford Sturgis said. It’s often what judges choose when a person has proven they cannot change, he said.

Still, people can change after a long period of incarceration as they mature.

“It’s hard to pretend for 20 years,” Sturgis said. “I can do a song and dance for a year or two but, 20 years, you’ve got to be pretty single-minded.”

Connect with this reporter: Janine Zeitlin News-Press (Facebook) @Janinezeitlin (Twitter).

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