The Florida Legislature is back insession. Normally, this is a time when our representatives try to correct old wrongs and seek justice. But that is not the case for Palm Coast’s GOP Rep. Paul Renner, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee. He has publicly stated that he has no intention of taking up legislation designed to address the plight of 935 inmates who are serving draconian, out-of-date sentences for petty crimes that would be more reasonably punished if committed today.
The problem began in the 1990s, when Florida legislators got swept up in Drug War jingoism and decided to “get tough.” They passed laws that imposed mandatory minimum sentences for people caught selling drugs and loaded the metrics to maximize the severity of those sentences. First offenders could serve as long as 15 to 25 years. Shortly thereafter, public defenders across the state saw their case loads grow as ordinary addicts got swept up in the dragnet.
Fast forward to January 2012: the nationwide opioid epidemic is underway and, suddenly, Florida realizes there is a problem. A study by the Florida Legislature’s policy research office found that most convicted opioid traffickers were simply addicts. Of the 1,200 cases the office examined, 74 percent involved offenders with no prior prison experience. In 2014, legislators, public defenders and even the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association successfully pushed to change the ‘90s-era law.
But now there’s another problem; a complex Florida Constitution provision—a holdover from the Jim Crow period and the only one of its kind in the nation—prohibited sentencing law changes from applying retroactively. Therefore, those already convicted or waiting trial for offences that occurred before 2014 could not have their sentences reduced under the new law.
This problem was almost solved in 2018 when Florida voters approved Amendment 11, which repealed the old provision. But before Amendment 11 could be applied, the Florida Legislature had to enact a law that permitted judges to retroactively change sentences. Despite the fact that two bipartisan bills have been filed in both state chambers to allow judges to retroactively change these draconian sentences, the Tampa Bay Times reports that Renner does not support these bills. That is important, because as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, he may be able to kill these bills. Renner says the inmates should instead seek pardons—which can take years. One attorney told the Tampa Bay Times it took 12 years to get a pardon hearing.
Renner’s position is cold hearted. The 935 people in question were first-time offenders. They were basically drug addicts, not the traffickers the old laws intended to target. Their sentences for possessing or selling prescription drugs were longer—sometimes even five times longer—than the sentences others got for possessing or selling street drugs. If any of them committed their crimes today, they would receive sentences as short as three years. It is unjust to continue to imprison these 935 people and to keep them from their families.
Renner’s position is also undemocratic. Florida voters passed Amendment 11 and made it clear they want the new sentencing laws to apply retroactively. Renner should honor their wishes.
Finally, Renner’s position is fiscally irresponsible. According to Paula Dockery, a syndicated columnist for the Sun Sentinel, it costs the state an average of $20,000 per year to house one inmate. Thus, the state is paying approximately $18.7 million dollars on these inmates, each year. That is a huge waste of money.
Lucky, there are legislators fighting for these bills, including GOP state Sen. Rob Bradley of Orange Park. But if you really want change, the public must pressure Renner and other legislators to act. Now is the time to do so, while the Legislature is in session.
Bork is a Jacksonville-based attorney with more than 20 years’ experience.