Key Florida House Republican reluctant to address inmates serving outdated drug sentences

The House chair of the judiciary committee said that inmates with particularly “sympathetic circumstances” should apply for clemency, a process that takes years.
Rep. Paul Renner, R- Palm Coast.
Rep. Paul Renner, R- Palm Coast.
Published Dec. 18, 2019|Updated Dec. 18, 2019

TALLAHASSEE — A top House lawmaker in charge of crafting criminal justice policy said that he’s reluctant for the Legislature to address hundreds of inmates serving drug sentences that are no longer in state law.

Those inmates were the subject of a November Times/Herald investigation, which explained how Florida lawmakers’ easing of sentences for possessing or selling certain amounts of prescription painkillers, which have passed in the last five years, have not been applied to inmates already behind bars. That means that up to 935 prisoners currently serving 15- or 25-year sentences would receive a fraction of that had they committed the same crimes today.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to say, ‘We made this change, it should blanketly be applied retroactively,’” said Rep. Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, the chair of the House’s Judiciary committee who’s also in line to be a future speaker of the House.

Florida voters approved a ballot measure in November 2018 to allow lawmakers to apply current state sentencing laws to old cases, but the Legislature has yet to do so.

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

“What the voters did, I’m thankful they gave us the opportunity to look at retro-activity but what they didn’t do is mandate it,” Renner said. “Even the case (the Times/Herald) highlighted was someone who made multiple drug deals. At some point there’s a consequence and punishment for that.”

The Times/Herald story delved into the case of one inmate, Jomari DeLeon, who is serving 15 years for her first-time drug offense, when she sold a total of 48 hydrocodone pills to an undercover cop in two separate deals. If she committed the same crime now, she would likely receive three years or less.

Renner said that inmates with particularly “sympathetic circumstances” who are serving overly long sentences should apply for clemency, rather than wait on the Legislature, because it allows for case-by-case scrutiny that would ensure no one is released that shouldn’t be.

Renner's statements don't bode well for two bills currently filed in the Legislature, one each in the House and Senate, which propose to allow judges to review the cases of inmates serving outdated sentences and grant them earlier release dates. Both have bipartisan co-sponsors. The House version, which would only allow certain inmates with no prior violent felonies to get new sentences, has more than 25 members signed on.

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

To apply for clemency, prison inmates looking to shorten their sentences and ex-felons applying to have their rights restored must submit applications to the Florida Commission on Offender Review. Then, those thousands of cases are investigated.

Those who have committed less serious crimes can have their applications reviewed without a hearing. But for all others, their cases come before the governor and the Cabinet, who hear the presentations of individual applications and decide whether they should be granted. Just getting a hearing for a clemency application can take many years.

The Cabinet meets to hear clemency applications four times a year, getting through about 80 each time. As of December 1, there were 23,752 pending clemency cases, according to the commission.

Additionally, there is a set number of years each person must wait before they are even allowed to submit their application for clemency. For prisoners like DeLeon, who are serving mandatory sentences set out in state law, they must serve half their sentence before applying.

That means she wouldn't be allowed to apply until late 2023.

Reggie Garcia, a lawyer and lobbyist who's represented clients seeking clemency for more than 25 years, said clemency is an opportunity for the government to show mercy — but it's too slow.

“The last full pardon I argued took 12 years to get a hearing,” Garcia said. “Regardless of the merits of a specific case, I think most people would agree no function of state government should take that long.”

In fact, the arcane inefficiencies of the clemency process was one reason why advocates pushed for Amendment 4, which was passed by voters in 2018 and amended the Florida Constitution to allow ex-felons to automatically get their voting rights restored upon the completion of “all terms” of their sentence. It bypassed the clemency board.

“The fact there are people waiting decades to have their voices heard is one of the reasons why there was such a groundswell of support,” said Neil Volz, political director for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the group that got Amendment 4 on the ballot. “People were looking at a system that wasn’t working as well as it should.”

But Volz noted that each administration has the power to change the clemency rules and can expedite the process if they choose. He said he’s “hopeful” Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Cabinet members will adopt rules to improve the speed at which they move through the caseload.

Under then-Gov. Charlie Crist, for example, felons' civil rights were automatically restored to non-violent offenders who had served their time, paid off all their restitution and had no additional pending charges, leading to 150,000 people getting their rights restored during his four-year administration, according to Crist. Gov. Jeb Bush, too, had a more streamlined process that allowed for an estimated 76,000 people getting their rights back through clemency.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the lone Democrat on the Cabinet, has been calling for rules similar to Crist's to be adopted since September, without success.

DeSantis, when asked Monday at a Miami event whether he would expand the clemency process, said he's considering making some changes but would still want the chance to review each application.

"We might do some things to try to streamline it," he said. "Ultimately, I believe in case-by-case (evaluation). Some people say, 'Just let people out,' ... We're not doing that. It's going to be case-by-case."

Miami Herald staff reporter Colleen Wright contributed to this report.