Senator, AG say a new bill is needed to prevent ‘chaos’

Author: The News Service of Florida
Published: Updated:
Prison cell bars. Photo via CBS.
Prison cell bars. Photo via CBS.

Attorney General Ashley Moody is pushing legislation she says is needed to prevent chaos in Florida’s legal system after voters overwhelmingly approved a measure that could reduce existing sentences of thousands of people convicted of crimes.

More than 4 million Floridians in November approved Amendment 11, which got rid of an 1800s-era constitutional “Savings Clause” provision that banned the Legislature from applying criminal-justice and sentencing changes retroactively.

The legislation (SB 1656), filed by Sen. Tom Lee with the help of Moody, seeks to “clarify” what voters approved and require that lawmakers sign off on the retroactive application of any new sentencing laws. Without the legislation, there will be chaos in the state’s court system as thousands of defendants try to appeal sentences, they argue.

“In the abundance of caution, we just want to make sure that unless our laws specifically say so, any reduction in the sentencing guidelines in the future does not retroactively apply to current prisoners,” Lee, R-Thonotosassa, told The News Service of Florida.

The proposal will be considered by lawmakers during the session that started Tuesday, along with a number of other bills that could significantly reduce the state’s prison population. One of those other changes, proposed by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, would raise the threshold amount for a felony theft change, which would potentially impact the sentences of thousands of inmates.

“We just want to make sure that … (Brandes’) bill, or others moving through the process, specifically say that they are going to apply to people currently convicted and serving sentences for those crimes,” Lee said.

Sen. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat who authored the savings-clause repeal last year as a member of the Florida Constitution Revision Commission, intends to push back on Lee’s proposal.

With the help of the criminal-justice reform group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Rouson plans to propose an amendment to Lee’s bill that would allow any sentencing changes to be applied retroactively, according to emails obtained by The News Service of Florida.

“I think it is important to level equity and to create fairness,” Rouson said. “I think that it makes sense that in an ever-evolving society, when we decide a mandatory punishment is too harsh, we should be able to apply it retroactively.”

Rouson is also sponsoring legislation that would make all sentencing changes retroactive, except for those that deal with capital punishment as a result of a unanimous jury verdict and a jury’s findings of aggravating circumstances. His bill (SB 704) has not been heard.

Greg Newburn, state policy director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said it is “critical” that lawmakers allow for automatic retroactivity of reductions in criminal penalties, which he says would reflect the will of voters.

Meanwhile, Lee argues the voter-approved constitutional amendment does not prevent the Legislature from picking and choosing which criminal statutes can apply retroactively.

“I guess rational people are probably going to be capable of disagreeing about that, but we have the ability to make these decisions on a case-by-case basis,” said Lee, who also served on the Constitution Revision Commission.

Lee’s proposal, which was filed this week, has not been heard. But it is among Moody’s priorities for the legislative session. Her office noted that the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association supports the proposal.

“There’s no way to know how many cases would be impacted if our bill wasn’t in place. There would be chaos in the court system with thousands of appeals and charges dismissed for crimes that were clearly illegal then and now,” said Lauren Schenone, a spokeswoman for Moody.

Copyright ©2023 Fort Myers Broadcasting. All rights reserved.

This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written consent.