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Release nonviolent felons convicted before Florida lawmakers relaxed harsh sentences | Column

Even Oklahoma, a state not famous for progressive reform, has done more than Florida to fix sentencing inequities, Carl Hiaasen writes.
Jomari DeLeon, is pictured at at Gadsden Correctional Facility in Quincy, Florida August 7, 2019. Jomari is three years into a 15-year sentence for drug trafficking. She sold 48 tablets of prescription tablets over two days to an undercover officer. [JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times]
Published Nov. 18
Carl Hiaasen [Carl Hiaasen]

The push for far-reaching prison reform, supported by both political parties, has overlooked the plight of hundreds of Florida inmates who remain unjustly locked up.

Legislators have been reducing sentences for drug possession and other nonviolent crimes, but they've failed to apply the new laws retroactively --stranding people who received harsh "minimum-mandatory" sentences before the reforms were put in place.

A disturbing investigative report by the Tampa Bay Times has focused on the case of Jomari DeLeon, a mother of three who’s serving a 15-year term for selling 48 hydrocodone pills for $225 to an undercover cop.

That happened in 2011. If DeLeon had committed the same crime in 2016, she would already be free. Her only previous brush with the law was a minor traffic infraction.

DeLeon thought she might be released after the Republican-led Legislature rewrote some 1990s-era drug laws that lawmakers such as Rob Bradley, a former prosecutor, called "draconian."

Almost everyone involved in the justice system agreed that the state's prisons were swelling up with addicts, not high-level dealers. It was costing taxpayers a fortune, and doing nothing to curb the pill epidemic.

One Orange County judge, forced to impose a 15-year sentence an oxycodone user who forged his prescriptions, complained: "We get the addicted and we get the organized crime, all treated the same under the wording of the Legislature. We have to enforce the laws, and we're stuck with them."

That has changed as legislators passed new sentencing thresholds, one of which more than tripled the number of pain pills that would trigger the tougher prison terms for sellers.

But DeLeon and many others sentenced under the old law didn't get released, as they'd hoped. A 131-year-old clause buried deep in the Florida Constitution barred retroactive reductions of prison terms, even if the laws were rewritten.

Last year, voters approved Amendment 11, which, among other things, repealed the archaic sentencing restriction and gave legislators a clear path to freeing inmates who've already served more time than the current laws mandate.

But the Legislature hasn't done anything, and appears to be in no hurry.

Rep. Robert "Alex" Andrade, a Republican from Pensacola, filed a bill that would let judges resentence prescription-drug violators convicted under the old laws. He's not optimistic that the measure will pass.

It's hard to understand how the consciences of legislative leaders aren't troubled by the fact that someone like DeLeon could be sitting in a cell for years to come, while others recently convicted of similar crimes will serve much less time -- and, conceivably, could be freed before she is.

Even Oklahoma, a state not famous for progressive reform, has done more than Florida to fix sentencing inequities. Earlier this month, 462 inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes were released in a single day.

It happened after voters there overwhelmingly approved a plan to cut prison populations by reclassifying many nonviolent felonies as misdemeanors. Oklahoma legislators did the morally right thing and made the new laws retroactive, effectively freeing most inmates who'd been sentenced under the older, more severe rules.

In addition, Oklahoma is now devoting modest resources to help released prisoners re-enter society, which is vital to minimizing the rate of recidivism. State officials say that releasing the 462 inmates will save $12 million in prison housing costs.

If Florida's lawmakers remain unmoved by the injustice of their own inaction, they should at least be alarmed by the dumb waste of government dollars.

The Times project made public an analysis by the nonpartisan Crime and Justice Institute estimating that as many as 640 current Florida inmates are, like DeLeon, serving outdated sentences for selling painkillers.

Another study by the Project on Accountable Justice, based at Florida State University, puts the number of prisoners in that group as high as 935.

The newspaper cited data from the Department of Corrections stating that Florida taxpayers currently spend almost $21 million to incarcerate 935 people for one year. Multiply that sum by the length of each inmate's sentence, and you'll get an idea of how expensive it is for the Legislature to do nothing.

And that doesn't include the human cost, which is incalculable.

After two trials, Jomari DeLeon is now in the third year of her 15-year sentence at the Gadsden Correctional Facility in Quincy. She hopes Florida lawmakers will follow Oklahoma's lead when they convene in January, and that she can soon be reunited with her family.

"Home is just everything to me right now," she told the Times. "I know that the years with my kids, I can't make up."

Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: The Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Miami, Fla., 33172.

© 2019 Miami Herald. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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