Advertisement
  1. Florida Politics

Romano: An amendment that could fix years of injustice

Florida voters will have a chance in the next few days to vote in favor of criminal justice reform with Amendment 11, but they will also have to accept two unrelated prosposals bundled in the  amendment. [OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times]
Florida voters will have a chance in the next few days to vote in favor of criminal justice reform with Amendment 11, but they will also have to accept two unrelated prosposals bundled in the amendment. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Oct. 31, 2018

The law was awful, and pretty much everyone knew it.

It was so bad, in fact, that lawmakers voted 157-0 to change it in 2016, and Gov. Rick Scott agreed to sign the bill that removed aggravated assault from the state's mindless 10-20-life sentencing standard.

So why is it still an issue in 2018? Because anyone sentenced prior to 2016 is still subject to the old mandatory minimum prison term.

Get it?

Virtually every politician in Tallahassee recognized that an automatic 20-year sentence for some crimes was excessive, foolish and cruel. And yet they did nothing for people already caught in that vortex.

Pasco High School graduate Erik Weyant had no criminal record and was part-owner of a family business when he was convicted of aggravated assault for firing a warning shot in the air.

If he did that today, his maximum sentence would be five years. Instead, at age 35, he's already spent 11 years in prison and still has nine more to go.

"It's been horrific beyond belief,'' said his father Kerry Weyant, 66. "At least if somebody dies, you have some closure. This is a suffering that never ends, and it's cost us a bloody fortune to fight. And he's still in the same place.''

Which brings us to the current election, and Amendment 11.

Of all the proposed amendments that made it through the Republican-dominated Constitution Revision Commission, state Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, got the only Democrat-sponsored idea onto the ballot. Rouson's proposal would remove an archaic section of the Constitution, known as the savings clause, that prohibits criminal statute changes to be applied retroactively.

Florida is one of only three states that still uses the savings clause — like that's a big surprise — and it would need to be repealed before the Legislature can deal with past injustices.

Along with aggravated assault changes, the state has also revised the threshold for opioid trafficking sentences. Cynthia Powell, for instance, was arrested in South Florida for selling 35 pain pills she had been prescribed for a medical condition.

The combined weight of the pills was slightly more than 1 ounce. In 2002 Florida, that was enough to be considered a drug trafficker. Powell has since spent 16 years in prison and still has at least five years to go. Under the new laws, she would have been released nine years ago.

"We've become more enlightened about what this lock-'em-up mentality has cost us,'' Rouson said. "We should have all the tools of sentencing reforms available, and that's what this amendment would accomplish.''

There is, however, a caveat to Amendment 11. It is bundled with two unrelated ideas (dealing with non-citizens owning property, and deleting language involving high-speed rail) that voters would also have to accept. Bundling, by its nature, is a cynical and unproductive way to change the Constitution.

And yet it may be the only way to get this needed reform for people such as Erik Weyant, whose case helped change state statutes in 2016.

"The Legislature agreed these sentences were inappropriate to the point that they changed the law,'' said Greg Newburn, director of state policy for Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "And yet the very people whose stories were told to get the law changed have been left behind. That's insane.''