James Caruso walked out of prison this summer after spending 18 years in the Florida Department of Corrections.
“I couldn’t wait to get here,” Caruso said overlooking the lake behind his childhood home in Sunrise. “Even being here now still seems unreal.”
Police arrested Caruso in 2002 with 48 pills of hydrocodone, a prescription opioid. He was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison and given a $500,000 fine.
“It was a hard day,” Caruso said while fighting back tears.
NBC 6 Investigators brought you his story last year as his family was fighting to get him out.
At the time, Caruso’s family shared the many important moments he missed behind bars - from birthdays and weddings, to the death of his father.
His family was there to capture the day he walked out of prison on camera. They described it as a surreal moment.
“He walked out. He had on a collared shirt and jeans, normal clothes...I remember looking at him and wow, I almost forgot what he looked like being himself,” said his sister Adriana Friedman, adding it was an “emotional and wonderful” moment.
Voters Approved Amendment, Lawmakers Kill Bill
When Caruso entered the Florida Department of Corrections, the state had 15 and 25 year mandatory minimums for trafficking hydrocodone and oxycodone.
Since then, the Republican-led legislature lowered the minimum mandatory time to as low as three years for those two opioids. But those changes didn’t apply to people already in prison.
In 2018, voters approved Amendment 11, which changed the Florida constitution. One of the things it did was allow lawmakers to retroactively change criminal sentences if the guidelines were revised after a prisoner was convicted.
But the attempt last legislative session to apply sentencing changes to the current prison population died in committee.
“While I was incarcerated, I had guys that were sent to prison for the same charge as me and getting out before me,” Caruso said.
“I think there’s people caught in a lot of situations,” said Len Engel, Policy and Campaign Director for the Crime and Justice Institute.
The Crime and Justice Institute has written several reports for the Florida legislature, measuring the state prison population. They predict more than 640 people in the state are serving time they would not get today.
The estimated cost of housing these inmates is $14 million, according to the Florida Department of Corrections’ most recent annual report.
“That’s a heavy fiscal burden on taxpayers,” Engel said.
Local Decisions Can Still Free Prisoners
Caruso is among 19 people who have been released since the Broward State Attorney’s office started reviewing drug-trafficking cases involving prescription pills.
They have reviewed the cases of 70 people and reduced the sentences for 24.
The Broward Chief Assistant State Attorney Jeff Marcus tells NBC 6 they believed it was an issue of “fundamental fairness.”
In Miami-Dade County, the State Attorney’s Office has reviewed 49 cases. They’re looking to see if three people could be released.
Caruso also had the half-million dollar fine wiped clean by the Broward State’s Attorney Office.
“He was an addict. He needed something different. The consequence was not right,” Friedman said.
Caruso went to prison at age 34. He begins his new life at 52.
“I finally bumped into God when I was in prison. So I began to seek after him and trust him higher than I trusted myself,” Caruso said.
Caruso says he started working recently and is rebuilding his life with his family.