Tachana Marc
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December 5, 2018

Florida Voters Said 'Yes' to Criminal Justice Reform During the Midterm Elections

There is a new wind blowing in Florida, and it feels like criminal justice reform. On Election Day, Floridians approved two significant criminal justice reform proposals that sent a strong signal to state lawmakers that robust criminal justice reform is needed. Amendment 4 automatically restored the voting rights of people with felony convictions and Amendment 11 allowed any changes made to criminal statutes to be applied retroactively.

Both amendments will be effective on January 8, 2019.  However, their immediate impacts will greatly differ. Amendment 4 is automatic, and it is estimated that 1.4 million people will have their rights restored right away. Amendment 11 may have a sizable impact on two types of communities: those who are currently serving sentences for aggravated assault with a firearm and drug trafficking with hydrocodone and oxycodone.

Pursuant to Florida law before 2014, the minimum sentences for drug trafficking with hydrocodone and oxycodone vary based on quantity, but carried a minimum sentencing ranging from five years to life. The Legislature updated the law and reduced the minimum sentence to three years in 2014. Similarly, aggravated assault with a firearm invoked the “10-20-Life” law, a guideline that set mandatory-minimum sentences for assaults involving guns. In 2016, the Legislature repealed “10-20-Life” for cases where the defendant was acting out of self-defense or when the court believes the totality of circumstances did not justify the imposition of the minimum sentence. However, none of these changes applied to those who were already serving time before the new change. With the passage of Amendment 11, these changes may be applied retroactively.

While the immediate results of Amendment 11 are limited, its potential is significant. It may reduce the number of inmates serving times under statutes that have been modified or repealed, thus lessening Florida’s ballooning inmate population. This change in the Constitution offers a way forward for Florida’s lawmakers to reverse decades of counterproductive “tough on crime” policies. Several states that have allowed a similar change in their statutes experienced a drop in their incarcerated population, which in turn yielded major fiscal benefits. An ideal example is Louisiana. As part of a comprehensive criminal justice package, the state allowed for changes in criminal laws to be applied retroactively. Consequently, Louisiana has early-released nearly 1,000 inmates within a year, and the state closed down one of its state prisons in March. While these results were the outcomes of a holistic criminal justice reform package, allowing criminal changes to be retroactive greatly increased the number of inmates who were qualified for early release.

In a state where criminal justice reform has often stalled, Amendment 11 provides an effective means through which Florida can make amends for its long history of outdated criminal justice policy. For example, the state has not revised or adjusted for inflation its $300 felony theft threshold since 1986. As reform becomes more imminent in the state, the Florida Policy Institute is hopeful that outdated policies will be properly updated, and Amendment 11 will help those with existing sentences to benefit from possible future changes.