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Sentencing reforms can come too late for people already in prison.

Sentencing reforms are usually prospective—meaning they only apply to cases after a new law’s enactment—unless they are explicitly written to apply retroactively.

A Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling confirmed this principle in early 2018 when the court held that Eugene Downs could not benefit from the Fair Sentencing Act (2010)—a law that reduced the sentencing disparity in mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine—even though the act was passed almost two weeks before the court entered the written judgment in his case.Downs v. United States, No. 16-5368 (6th Cir. 2018). This is because the law uniformly treats the date of the court’s oral pronouncement of sentence, which in Downs’s case occurred one day prior to the act’s passage, as the date of sentencing.

Florida adhered to the principle of no retroactivity until this year, when voters passed Amendment 11 to the state constitution, repealing a provision that forbid making changes to criminal sentencing laws retroactive.Florida Amendment 11 (Repeal Prohibition on Aliens’ Property Ownership, Delete Obsolete Provision on High-Speed Rail, and Repeal of Criminal Statutes' Effect on Prosecution Amendment) (2018). This could have major implications for people convicted of drug offenses because of a 2014 legislative change to drug sentencing laws that cut some sentence lengths by five years.Meg O’Connor, “Florida's Amendment 11 Could Fix Bad Drug Sentences, Cut Down Prison Populations,” Miami New Times, October 24.