Florida lawmaker files bill for judges to reduce outdated drug sentences

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Miami Herald on 11/14/2019 by Emily L. Mahoney

State Sen. Darryl Rouson, a Democrat from St. Petersburg, filed a bill which would set a framework for judges to re-sentence inmates who are serving outdated sentences no longer in state law.

The problem was highlighted in a Times/Herald investigation published Wednesday. The story showed how Florida’s continued changes to its drug sentencing laws have not been applied to anyone already behind bars serving outdated sentences. Until recently, an obscure clause in Florida’s constitution dating back to the Jim Crow era had prohibited state lawmakers from retroactively applying sentencing changes to old cases.

But since voters repealed that clause in 2018 by passing Amendment 11, the state Legislature has yet to put it into action. Rouson sponsored that ballot amendment.

He had said previously that he was considering filing a bill to help inmates in this legal time warp get new sentences consistent with current law. But hours after the Times/Herald investigation published, his bill appeared on the state’s website.

Rouson’s office said the story prompted them to move quickly to make the bill a reality.

“At the end of the day, it’s about saving lives,” Rouson said. “Keeping families intact and returning citizens back to the community.”

Unlike a related House bill which would only allow inmates to be re-sentenced if they meet certain criteria, such as not having any prior violent felony convictions, Rouson’s bill would essentially require judges to give these inmates sentences consistent with current law.

It also would mandate that the Florida Department of Corrections notify inmates who may be eligible for re-sentencing, so they can file a motion to appear before a judge.

The state Legislature has made multiple changes over the past five years to the state’s sentencing laws for possessing or selling certain amounts of prescription opioids like hydrocodone and oxycodone. Yet those changes have left hundreds stranded in prison serving long sentences from laws no longer on the books.

In addition to drug trafficking convictions, Rouson’s bill would also allow inmates convicted of aggravated assault to be re-sentenced. Florida’s law for aggravated assault used to impose strict mandatory minimums, which have since been eased back.

As of Thursday, Rouson’s bill, Senate Bill 902, had not been assigned any committees. But he said he is more optimistic this year than any before that state lawmakers are ready to make criminal justice reforms like this.

“The time is now. The issue is ripe,” Rouson said. “Based on what I’ve heard and seen, there is willingness on part of … senators to really take hold and do something different.”

He added that the Florida House “tends to be a little more conservative” on this issue, but is “hopeful” that House members “will be more open this year than they have in the past.”