The Florida Legislature has introduced a new bill that intends to clear the way for future efforts to reduce the state’s prison population by offering some inmates the chance to reverse their mandatory minimum sentences.

The bill, SB 704, sponsored by Senator Darryl Rouson, seeks to implement Amendment 11, which ended Florida’s 134-year history of refusing to make retroactive sentencing reductions. Specifically, SB 704 will make retroactive any future criminal justice reforms, and would make all prior reforms, including a 2016 change to a twenty-year mandatory minimum on aggravated assault, as well as a 2014 amendment to the state’s drug laws, applicable to currently incarcerated individuals.

According to Raymer Maguire from the ACLU of Florida’s criminal justice manager, the passage of this bill would be the most significant change to the state’s criminal justice system. He further states that the bill, albeit not perfect, would be a major step in the right direction for the state.

There is no headcount at this time as to how many prisoners will experience relief under the new bill however, it is estimated to be at least two hundred or more.

According to Maguire, the impact of the bill will not be felt on an immediate basis. Alternatively, it will influence the Legislature to make future reforms that could dramatically reduce the state’s prison population. Without the passage of Amendment 11, additional reforms would have only been limited to any cases in the future, with current prisoners remaining unaffected.

The amendment was passed with 62% of the vote across the state. It was the only amendment to the Florida Constitution sponsored by a Democrat that survived the Constitution Revision Commission process last year. According to Greg Newburn of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, voters, for the first time, are indicating that they want the law to create retroactive reforms. Newburn assisted Rouson in drafting Amendment 11, and he spearheaded the campaign in Florida to influence voters to approve the initiative. Newburn further notes that he is fully confident that had the savings clause not been in the constitution in 2014 and 2016, those reforms would have been retroactive. He also states that since the savings clause is currently not a part of the constitution, they should be retroactive, and as such, there is no good reason not to pass the bill.

Until January of 2020, Florida was the only state in the country with a constitutional ban on amending criminal statutes on a retroactive basis, per the Constitution Revision Commission. This ban is otherwise commonly known as the savings clause.

Back in 1855, the state of Florida enacted a ban on retroactive reductions in prison sentencing. That ban has prevented attempts in the past to decrease the state’s enormous prison population. For the past ten years, a smaller amount of inmates have been sent to prison, but that has not made a dent in the current population, which amounts to nearly 100,000 inmates as of January of 2020, per a state database. The current cost for Florida prisons is at its highest - $2.6 billion in the current fiscal year – which is associated with long prison sentences that have led to an aging prison population.

Rouson notes that he hopes that the Legislature will use its wisdom to give people another chance at living a crime free life. He further notes that this is what the bill is all about.

The bill however, is not applicable to the 2016 and 2017 amendments to the death sentence that requires a unanimous jury decision. Before 2016, individuals could face the death sentence even if a jury did not reach a unanimous decision. This has changed following decisions rendered by the Florida Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court. However, the Florida Supreme Court has only rendered the decision that the bill would only apply to sentences issued after June of 2002. Some people in the state are hoping that Amendment 11 could make the new death penalty laws applicable to cases that are older, and afford those on death row a second chance at sentencing. “We wish we could include the death penalty,” said Gainesville Public Defender Stacy Scott. However, she understands that the death penalty being added to the bill would make it untenable for some lawmakers.

Since the passage of Amendment 11, public defenders across Florida are receiving phone calls from prisoners inquiring as to whether their current outdated sentences could be subject to reduction.

When a public defender from Orlando got wind of a past client of his who was still imprisoned for twelve years after being convicted of aggravated assault (had he been convicted today, the mandatory prison term would have been five years, not the twenty-year prison sentence he was given), he thought about requesting that a judge change his client’s sentence pursuant to Amendment 11. However, he was convinced that it would take new legislation, such as Rouson’s bill, to reduce his client’s sentence.

The public defender notes that his only fear is that the Florida Legislature will seek to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes but not for those offenses involving violence.

According to Leah Sakala, a policy associate for the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, reducing sentence lengths on a retroactive basis is essential in seeking to reduce the rate of incarceration in the state.


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