TALLAHASSEE — After an early showing of bipartisan support for easing penalties for certain drug convictions in Florida, lawmakers enter the final phase of the 2020 session with one bill still standing and others in the graveyard.
Lawmakers have not heard bills in either the House or Senate that would allow judges to shorten sentences of hundreds of prisoners serving drug sentences no longer in state law. At this stage in the legislative session, which is scheduled to end March 13, that means the bills are almost certainly dead.
“I’m completely heartbroken, hurt and feel so defeated,” said Jomari DeLeon in an email sent from a prison in Gadsden County. She is serving 15 years for selling 48 hydrocodone pills to an undercover cop in 2011. If she had committed the same crime today, she would likely get three years or less.
Her story was reported in a November Times/Herald investigation, which contributed to the filing of the Senate version of the bill that would have allowed for inmates like DeLeon to be re-sentenced according to current law. Voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2018 that opened the door for the Legislature to apply current law to past cases, but lawmakers have taken no action to do so.
“People who have my same charges have left years before I even get to go home, and they continue to arrive and leave before I do," DeLeon wrote.
Her sentence was determined by the weight of drugs involved in her crime, laid out in law as a “mandatory minimum.” But after more than a decade on the books, lawmakers changed the sentencing law in 2014 to require more pills to trigger lengthy sentences.
Yet up to 935 Florida inmates like DeLeon still remain in legal purgatory, serving those outdated 15- or 25-year punishments, according to a report by criminal justice researchers housed at Florida State University.
DeLeon’s mother and stepfather considered making the 270-mile trek from their home in Kissimmee to Tallahassee to speak with lawmakers. But that changed after the bills didn’t get any hearings.
“These are working people ... and to leave home and come up to Tallahassee for a day or two is expensive and inconvenient,” said Greg Newburn, Florida director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “If the Legislature has already signaled an unwillingness to even consider these sort of things ... I couldn’t in good conscience ask them to come up.”
Several lawmakers in top leadership did not express strong opposition to revisiting outdated sentences. But they indicated it was not a priority or they had not deeply researched the issue.
House Speaker José Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, said he needs more information to show that “releasing those people would not create an additional danger to society.”
"But I'm not against doing it for the simple reason of overall fairness," he said earlier this session.
Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa, who chairs the House’s criminal justice committee, said it’s an issue “that we should be exploring."
But this year, Grant said, he chose to pursue bills that have less room for “unintended consequences,” such as giving inmates more access to pursue DNA testing in their cases and making it easier for felons to get professional licenses after they leave prison.
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A second major sentencing bill, which would allow judges to dole out sentences shorter than the mandatory minimum for some drug crimes, has a better chance of success.
Proponents for Senate Bill 346 say it would give judges more power when they feel a sentence is overly harsh. They could ease sentences as long as the defendant met certain criteria — such as having no prior violent felony convictions and if their crime did not cause serious injury or death. Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, who sponsored the bill, said it will save the state money but, more importantly, it will prevent injustices.
"If this bill holds then we will have had the most meaningful sentencing reform since the laws were changed in the late 90s," Bradley said.
But when Bradley’s bill reached the Senate floor late last month, he tacked on several amendments that limited when this sentencing flexibility could apply. Now, judges would only be able to give out a lesser sentence when the defendant is facing a 3-year sentence, the lowest of the mandatory minimums laid out in law. Bradley also removed a separate piece requiring police officers to record interrogations.
He said he made those changes to accommodate critiques he heard from law enforcement and prosecutors, as well as other senators, Attorney General Ashley Moody and the governor’s office.
But the House version of his bill was never heard in committee, despite having 27 bipartisan co-sponsors. Bradley said on the Senate floor that he had not yet begun negotiations with the House, but is hopeful that his proposal can be added as an amendment to a House bill.
Oliva recently signaled a willingness to consider it, saying House members "share (Bradley’s) concerns of ensuring we’re not putting people in jail past the time of whatever value the punishment has.”
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In the meantime, the Florida Sheriffs Association has been touting reports they have said are designed “to debunk the myth that drug offenders in the state prison system are non-violent, low level offenders.”
A release from the group unequivocally states: “As the data shows in this report, there are no first-time drug offenders ending up in our state prisons.”
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who is president of the sheriffs association, said that the statement is based on the fact that their report found 65 Florida inmates who are in prison for the first time on charges of drug possession, but who all had prior arrests for drugs.
“What frustrates us very significantly is the notion by advocates on the other side, the false premise that there are people who are addicts, drug possessors, who are not getting ... the right treatment because we’re just holding them in state prison," Gualtieri said.
But when counting only people convicted of drug possession, the sheriffs association leaves out people like DeLeon, who was convicted of drug trafficking but had no prior criminal record beyond a traffic violation. In Florida, trafficking is defined simply as possessing or selling above a certain amount of drugs.
And a 2012 report by the Legislature’s own policy research office found that because of the way the trafficking law was written, most people convicted of trafficking before the change in law were addicts.
Gualtieri conceded that when it comes to trafficking sentences for prescription pills, as opposed to street drugs, not everyone was a big-time dealer.
“You did have a whole bunch of people — I acknowledge this — that got caught up in the pill quantity with trafficking and for some of those it triggered the 25-year mandatory minimums, which were steep,” he said.
Newburn, with Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said the sheriffs’ reports are incorrect.
“It’s not just that there isn’t just one (first-time offender in prison)," Newburn said. "There are hundreds.”