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Thousands of inmates may get out early

A state court ruling makes more than 14,000 eligible to have time shaved off their sentences.

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 5, 2000


Polk County armed robber Curtis Leon Heggs is getting out of prison early. And he's eventually bringing up to 14,474 other prisoners with him.

The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday finalized a ruling that declared unconstitutional a 1995 get-tough-on-crime sentencing law.

The decision, stemming from an appeal by Heggs, means more than 14,000 prison inmates statewide may be immediately eligible to have time shaved off their sentences.

Some may be eligible for immediate release.

The ruling may affect everyone from former Baptist leader Henry J. Lyons, a St. Petersburg minister serving a 51/2-year sentence for racketeering and grand theft, to a host of violent criminals.

"We obviously don't want to see these guys out on the street again," said Wayne Chalu, chief assistant prosecutor in Hillsborough. "But that's unfortunately probably the way it's going to go."

The court ruled that the Crime Control Act of 1995, which enhanced penalties for a wide range of felonies, violated the sacrosanct single-subject rule of the Florida Constitution. The Constitution says all laws must embrace just one subject.

But the 1995 law, the justices ruled, contained provisions of several unrelated subjects, including civil remedies for victims of domestic violence and criminal sentencing guidelines.

The Supreme Court ruled on Heggs on Feb. 17. But on Thursday, the court refused a request by the Florida Attorney General's Office to reconsider or rehear the case.

While attorneys say some prisoners already have seen their sentences reduced in other parts of the state, judges in the Tampa Bay area were awaiting Thursday's decision before deciding cases locally.

The Supreme Court said those sentenced under provisions of the law must now be resentenced under 1994 guidelines, with generally less-severe penalties.

Depending on the prisoner, that could lop a few months or even a few years off sentences. For Heggs, whose appeal first challenged the law, that might mean three years cut from an 11-year term.

Judges, prosecutors and court administrators across Tampa Bay now are preparing for what is expected to be a flood of petitions by prisoners seeking lesser sentences.

State Department of Corrections figures show that the ruling could affect 1,191 inmates from Pinellas-Pasco and 1,375 from Hillsborough.

In the five-county Fifth Judicial Circuit, which includes Hernando and Citrus counties, another 477 prisoners may be eligible for early release.

"It's a big deal all over Florida," said Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger. "This thing's going to spread like wildfire once inmates get the word."

They may already be getting it.

Clearwater defense lawyer Denis de Vlaming said he has heard from several imprisoned clients who want to petition the courts for lesser time. De Vlaming, who represents Lyons, plans to file a petition on the minister's behalf and hopes to cut 18 months from Lyons' sentence.

"The Heggs decision seems to be the chant in the prisons these days," de Vlaming said.

Some question whether DOC figures may prove too high. De Vlaming noted that many inmates won't qualify, especially those who accepted a plea bargain from prosecutors.

And others face identical sentences under both 1994 and 1995 guidelines.

So far, just 164 prisoners sentenced in Pinellas have petitioned the courts for a sentence reduction and another 30 in Pasco. Hillsborough figures are unavailable.

But Dillinger said his office hasn't begun to file numerous additional petitions.

"We'll be going through our cases starting (today)," he said. "I just know it's going to be hundreds."

Hearings on sentence reductions may begin within several weeks.

How many prisoners are affected also may depend on how circuit judges interpret the Supreme Court decision.

The 2nd District Court of Appeal, where Heggs' appeal originated, previously ruled that inmates could petition for sentence reductions if their crimes occurred between Oct. 1, 1995, and May 24, 1997.

Another appellate court in South Florida ruled that the window of opportunity was nearly eight months narrower.

The Supreme Court decision didn't specify, leaving it to lower court judges to decide case by case.

"I guess how significant this is will be in the eye of the beholder," said Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe. "If it's just a month or two off a sentence, if it were me, I'd think it was pretty significant."

For Debbie Keller of St. Petersburg, whose 27-year-old son John Hadden hopes to cut 14 months off a four-year sentence for violating his probation on a burglary conviction, every day counts.

Said Keller: "He's got a 2-year-old daughter he's anxious to see."

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