It took two days for Jomari DeLeon to sell 48 hydrocodone painkillers. Now she is serving 15 years in prison, an outdated punishment that outweighs her crime. Roughly 1,000 Florida prison inmates are in DeLeon’s predicament, serving sentences far longer than they would if they were sentenced under current law now. This is an indefensible situation morally and financially, and the Legislature should correct it.
Mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking crimes adopted decades ago were supposed to target serious drug dealers, not the average addict or one-time seller. Yet the Florida Legislature’s policy research office found in 2012 that of 1,200 cases it examined about 13 years after the tougher drug sentences were enacted, 74 percent of inmates arrested for possessing or selling hydrocodone and oxycodone had never been to prison before.
Lawmakers wisely made some changes. A 2014 law increased the number of hydrocodone or oxycodone pills that trigger long mandatory prison sentences. But DeLeon’s crime was committed in 2011, and the Florida Constitution prohibited changes in sentencing laws to be applied retroactively. After voters repealed that clause last year, DeLeon asked for a shorter sentence. Yet a judge denied her request because state lawmakers need to create a framework for carrying out the change in the Constitution. Once again, legislators have ignored the intent of the voters.
Imprisoning people unnecessarily is not just bad news for those convicted. It’s bad news for taxpayers. It costs the state $20.7 million to hold 935 people in prison for one year, reports Emily Mahoney of the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau. That translates to roughly $22,139 per person per year and $60.65 a day per person. That’s tax money that could be put to better use.
Fortunately, there is hope of restoring fundamental fairness. Following Mahoney’s reporting, Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, filed a bill that would create a system for judges to re-sentence inmates who are serving sentences that have since been reduced. The legislation would also require that the Department of Corrections let inmates know if they are eligible for re-sentencing. Gov. Ron DeSantis sounded less than enthused, noting that re-sentencing inmates would not necessarily save the state money if they are released and commit another crime. But most of the inmates who would qualify for reduced sentences on drug crimes had never been in prison before, and there is no reason to think many of them would be repeat offenders.
The Legislature has recognized that long prison sentences for minor drug crimes are not sound policy, and it has reduced them. Florida voters have recognized that it is unfair for prison inmates to serve long prison sentences that have since been reduced, and they cleared the way for those inmates to be resentenced under current law. Now state legislators should reaffirm the wisdom of the reduced sentencing laws they approved, follow the intent of the voters and create the pathway for judges to resentence inmates serving outdated sentences. It’s morally right, financially prudent and entirely appropriate.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.