TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A bill that would give the Legislature power to decide on a law-by-law basis whether to reduce past prison sentences cleared a Senate panel Monday following tearful testimony from criminal-justice reform advocates.
The proposal came after Floridians in November overwhelmingly passed Amendment 11, which in part repealed a century-old provision called the “Savings Clause” to allow revisions to criminal laws to affect sentences for older crimes.
“The ability to make criminal justice reforms retroactive is the greatest ray of hope we have,” said Paul Heroux, with Florida Cares, an advocacy group for people who are incarcerated. “For many of our membership, the message of retroactivity is a hope so wonderful that it is painful.”
The bill (SB 1656), sponsored by Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, would “clarify” Amendment 11 and is backed by Attorney General Ashley Moody. The bill says all criminal statute revisions should apply prospectively unless the Legislature explicitly says they apply to older cases.
The measure was approved Monday by the Criminal Justice Committee, with Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, opposed.
“I feel like we are thwarting the will of the voters,” Bracy said. “For that reason, I am not going to support the bill as amended.”
The bill would allow people awaiting trial to benefit from prospective criminal statute revisions, a provision sought by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg.
“If you have been charged with (aggravated) assault in February and you get your final judgment in October … at sentencing you would be charged under the new sentencing scheme the Legislature decided on July 1,” Brandes explained during committee on Tuesday.
With the Legislature able to make sentencing changes, Lee said he thinks it could help make criminal-justice reforms.
“I honestly think it is going to make it easier to pass criminal justice reform,” Lee argued. “If we put ourselves in a posture where every member in the Legislature has to think about how this may automatically apply to a post-conviction population, then people are going be worried about who we’re letting out of jail.”
Lee added that lawmakers would have to deal with the consequences in the “next mail piece” when they run for re-election.
“I have been around long enough, and you all have gone through enough campaigns, to know what those mail pieces look like,” Lee said.
But for people like Heroux, the “ray of hope” was the passage of Amendment 11.
Audrey Hudgens, whose son, William, was sentenced to life in prison at age 21 for committing an armed robbery in the 1990s, said retroactive application of new sentencing laws is her only hope to see her son out of prison. Hudgens said her son was carrying a gun, but never used it. She added that her son committed the crime when he was doing “$300 of cocaine a day,” an addiction he struggled to brush off.
“For 22 years, we have held onto every possibility of hope, including the overwhelming passage of Amendment 11,” Hudgens said in tears. “However, with this bill there is the presumption that future criminal justice reforms will not and should not be retroactive.”
The bill must clear one more Senate committee before it can get a full floor vote. A similar measure is moving forward in the House.