Florida’s voter-approved constitutional amendment 11 abandoned the “savings clause” that has been in Article X, Section 9 of the state constitution since 1885. The clause bans any changes to a criminal statute from being applied retroactively. The change means that sentencing reform could apply to cases of people already imprisoned. But how that should work is perplexing Florida legislators as they attempt to establish exactly what the amendment meant or should mean. Some legislators believe that if the amendment is not clarified, turmoil is on the horizon. Attorney General Ashley Moody agrees and is backing legislation proposed by Senator Tom Lee. On the other hand, others such as Senator Darryl Rouson see this as an unnecessary attempt to manipulate and narrow the provision. The debate emerged over whether or not Amendment 11 should be interpreted to allow by default the retroactive application of sentencing reform to those previously sentenced or only those cases approved by the Legislature. The outcome will affect thousands in Florida.
Lee and Moody argue that legislation should specify exactly what voters really wanted to gain out of Amendment 11 and would prevent any confusion as to its meaning. Without this guidance, they claim thousands of defendants would attempt to appeal their current sentences, thus overwhelming the court system. Lee’s bill, SB 1656, seeks to require the Legislature to specify in any sentencing reform law whether it is to apply retroactively.
“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 told The News Service of Florida.
Rouson told Florida Politics.com that he sees this as a direct assault on the will of the voters and an ill-advised initiative. Rouson authored this revision to Florida’s constitution as a member of the Florida Constitutional Revision Commission. He lacks the backing of the Attorney General but has his own support from Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a criminal justice reform group. Being the author of the revision, his say on the matter is especially important, as it provides insight on how he intended the language to be received, interpreted, and applied. He is planning on adding an amendment to Lee’s bill which would allow for any sentencing changes to be applied retroactively. As an added measure, he is also sponsoring legislation that would enable most sentencing changes to be applied retroactively. The exceptions would be those as a result of a unanimous jury verdict and a jury’s finding of aggravating circumstances in death penalty cases.
This battle is important. If it is decided that retroactive application of new/changed sentencing laws is to be automatic, then thousands of those already convicted could challenge their current sentences. However, if it is determined that automatic retroactive application should not be presumed, then current sentences would stand unless otherwise specified by legislation. Regardless, the fate of thousands of inmates and those already sentenced hangs in the balance, making this decision critical.