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DeSantis lukewarm on releasing Florida prisoners with outdated sentences

Hundreds of Florida inmates are serving sentences no longer in state law, according to new research.
On the issue of whether to retroactively apply changes in Florida’s sentencing laws to inmates currently in prison, Gov. Ron DeSantis says he prefers to deal with cases using the clemency process. [STEVE CANNON  |  AP]
On the issue of whether to retroactively apply changes in Florida’s sentencing laws to inmates currently in prison, Gov. Ron DeSantis says he prefers to deal with cases using the clemency process. [STEVE CANNON | AP]
Published Nov. 19, 2019
Updated Nov. 19, 2019

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis said he is skeptical of proposals to retroactively apply changes in Florida’s sentencing laws to inmates currently in prison.

While announcing his proposed state budget at the Capitol on Monday, he was asked about the millions of dollars the state could save each year by applying newer sentencing laws to people already behind bars.

“Well, the savings, that would assume they’re not going to go back into the system, right? And I don’t think that’s a good assumption," he said. “I’m not sure how much that would ultimately save. It would really depend on the population you’re talking about.”

Retroactive re-sentencing was the subject of a Times/Herald investigation published last week. It cited new research about the hundreds of Florida inmates currently behind bars serving sentences that are no longer in state law, for possessing or selling prescription painkillers in certain amounts. The story focused on Jomari DeLeon, who is serving 15 years for a first-time drug offense in 2011 that would have qualified for only three years if she had committed the same crime after 2014.

RELATED: Hundreds of Florida inmates are serving drug sentences no longer in state law

DeSantis raised his concerns about the tendency for convicted criminals to offend again despite a 2012 report by the state’s research office that found that of the thousands of prisoners who were convicted of opioid trafficking under Florida’s old sentencing laws, 74 percent had never previously been to prison.

Florida lawmakers have repeatedly changed the penalties for these drug crimes over the past five years, rolling back harsh mandatory sentences that many realized were draconian in retrospect.

Bills have been filed in both the House and Senate, with some differences, that would allow judges to apply changes in sentencing laws to old cases. The Legislature convenes in January.

RELATED: St. Petersburg lawmaker files bill to reduce outdated drug sentences for Florida inmates

DeSantis also implied that he prefers the clemency process, in which individuals submit an application and appear before the governor and members of the Cabinet to ask for a pardon or a commutation of their sentence.

“We’ve done clemency here. We’ve done different things for folks who have kind of gotten on a good track and done that, but those are individual determinations,” DeSantis said. “If you start doing that retroactive stuff, I mean as a prosecutor, I know there are people that would get prosecuted for offenses that, necessarily, that wasn’t the most serious misconduct.”

Greg Newburn, Florida director for FAMM, an advocacy group against mandatory-minimum sentences, tweeted shortly after the governor made his comments Monday, pointing out that judges would execute a case-by-base review of inmates being re-sentenced.

“Retroactive sentencing reform allows for individualized outcomes exactly the way clemency does,” Newburn said. “Each person is re-sentenced individually, just to a sanction everyone recognizes would be more appropriate than the sentence they’re serving under the repealed law.”

Additionally, no one should be kept in prison longer than the current law allows based solely on the suspicion that they will commit another crime, he added.

“The case for retroactivity does not rest primarily on cost savings,” he said in another tweet. “It rests primarily on the idea that we should not deprive people of their liberty unnecessarily, which is unambiguously what is happening right now.”

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