05/15/2012 03:08 pm ET Updated Jul 15, 2012

Mothers and Mandatory Minimums

This Mother's Day was another bittersweet one for Janet Earle. At 78, she has outlived two of her three sons. A dozen years ago, she lost her third son, Scott, through the cracks of Florida's criminal justice system. That Scott remains in a Florida prison is as useless for public safety as it is heartbreaking to Janet Earle.

Janet Earle's story is unique because her son's sentence is so unwarranted. Scott's drug conviction was not the result of evil intent, but rather of a sadly common combination of addiction and bad judgment. Scott began using painkillers after he suffered a sports injury as a teenager. He did not become an addict, however, until after he was involved in several car accidents. His dependence on the medication grew until he was taking over a dozen pills each day. Janet Earle didn't notice her son's addiction because during this time he worked full-time at an auto dealership and moonlighted as a musician.

In September 1995, Scott was admitted to the emergency room for a painful diverticulitis attack. The doctor prescribed him Vicodin. Several days later, Scott's roommate introduced him to a beautiful woman at a neighborhood bar. After getting drinks with Scott and learning of his recent hospital visit, the woman asked him if she could have some of his pills for her back pain. Scott obliged. Unbeknownst to him, however, the woman was an undercover police officer.

Soon, she began calling Scott at home and at work, asking if he could get more pain medication for her. Scott's legal prescription had run out so he contacted a friend who knew someone that could supply the woman with painkillers. The officer started out by purchasing small amounts of pills and then began requesting over 100 at a time. Scott, who had developed strong feelings for his new "friend," would meet her at the neighborhood bar, where she would pick up her pills from the supplier. Afterwards, she and Scott would drink and talk for hours.

Three months after meeting the woman at the bar, Scott became painfully aware of her true identity when he was arrested for felony drug trafficking and conspiracy. Janet Earle knew her son would have to pay for his mistake, but neither she nor Scott could believe how high the price would be until they learned of Florida's mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws. Even after accepting responsibility and pleading guilty, Scott Earle was sentenced to a mandatory 25 years in state prison.

At Scott's sentencing, Judge Mark Speiser seemed troubled by the punishment he was forced to impose on a first-time nonviolent offender. He said, "I have to express my deep concern about this particular situation... this punishment does not fit the crime. We are not talking about a first or second-degree murder."

Scott Earle made a bad mistake. He wrongly connected a woman he liked to a man selling pain medicine. On the other hand, he did not benefit financially at all from the transactions. He was simply a matchmaker. In contrast to Scott's two-and-a-half decade prison sentence, the man who actually supplied the painkillers to the officer served only five years on probation.

Scott Earle has now served 14 years of his sentence. He has tried to make the most of his incarceration by completing college courses, as well as vocational training. He regularly participates in Bible study and is a chapel clerk. Addicted to pain pills for a decade and a half, Scott has achieved 14 years of sobriety. He has been a model prisoner with no disciplinary infractions.

While life has not been easy on the inside for Scott, it's been equally difficult on the outside for Janet Earle. During Scott's incarceration, she and Scott's father were forced to bury their other two sons. Scott is all she has left. Because she is ill and lives in Massachusetts, she hasn't seen her son for ten years. Yet at age 78, she holds out hope that she will have him back before she dies.

Mothers like Janet Earle are not soft on crime. On the contrary, mothers often are our first punishers. Mothers teach children to take responsibility for their actions, and to accept the consequences when they do wrong. Mothers dispense and believe in justice. But as mothers like Janet Earle have learned the hard way, mandatory sentences that ignore individual circumstances do not deliver justice. They inflict unnecessary pain and misery, and they must be repealed in Florida and across the country.