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Life Without Parole for Juveniles: Florida Struggles to Comply With Supreme Court Ruling

| March 6, 2014

Florida's sentencing guidelines for juveniles are the harshest in the nation, and out of step with Supreme Court rulings. (Nicolas Nova)

Florida’s sentencing guidelines for juveniles are the harshest in the nation, and out of step with Supreme Court rulings. (Nicolas Nova)

The sponsor of a bill that would bring Florida into line with two U.S. Supreme Court decisions on juvenile sentencing offered a compromise Wednesday — but critics said it didn’t go far enough.

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A divided Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee approved a proposal (SB 384) that would change the state’s juvenile-sentencing laws. The 7-5 vote came after Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, proposed an amendment based on talks with Sen. Rene Garcia, a Hialeah Republican who has argued that juvenile offenders should have a chance at redemption.

The compromise would allow juveniles who were guilty of crimes that resulted in murder but didn’t actually “pull the trigger,” in Bradley’s words, to have their sentences reviewed after 25 years. But there would be no such reviews for those who performed the act of killing.

“With regards to the actual people who committed the murder, pulled the trigger, the actual killers — they would be receiving 35 to life,” Bradley said. “No hearings.”

Lawmakers are grappling with U.S. Supreme Court decisions that involve two types of juvenile defendants. In a 2010 case, known as Graham v. Florida, the high court banned life sentences without the chance of parole for juveniles convicted of non-homicide crimes. And in a 2012 ruling known as Miller v. Alabama, the high court found that juveniles convicted of murder can still face life sentences, but that judges must weigh criteria such as the offenders’ maturity and the nature of the crimes before imposing that sentence. In both cases, the court banned mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles.

At the heart of Bradley and Garcia’s compromise are the Miller defendants, who were guilty of murder. The compromise also would allow the Graham defendants, whose crimes were serious but not homicides, to be eligible for reviews at 20 years and, if they failed to obtain modified sentences, again at 30 years.

The pressure is on the Legislature this year to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court rulings because without sentencing guidelines, the Florida judiciary is filling the gap one case at a time.

On Thursday, in fact, the state Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case of Rebecca Falcon, who was 15 years old when she committed first-degree murder and was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Falcon is arguing that her sentence is now unconstitutional under the Miller ruling.

Florida sentences more juveniles to life in prison without parole than any other state.

The U.S. Supreme Court decisions were based on the idea that children are constitutionally different from adults and function at different stages of brain development. As a result, the court held, juvenile sentencing guidelines must offer young offenders the chance to show that they have been rehabilitated behind bars.

Falcon had a lifelong history of sexual and mental abuse and no criminal history when she participated in an armed robbery that turned fatal. Falcon acknowledged pulling the trigger in a panic. But authorities say she has been a model prisoner for 15 years, earning her high school diploma, living in a faith-based prison program and writing to the widow of the man she killed in order to apologize.

In the four years since the Graham decision, the Legislature has taken up bills that would have allowed life sentences for juveniles with the possibility of release if they show signs of rehabilitation. None passed. Last year, Bradley withdrew a bill from the Senate floor that would have allowed a review after 50 years; it faced opposition for being too harsh.

“I’ve made arguments that none of them should get a hearing,” Bradley acknowledged Wednesday. But he credited Garcia and Sen. Arthenia Joyner, a Tampa Democrat who is the panel’s vice-chairwoman, with making the arguments that changed his mind.

Garcia, with ashes smudged on his forehead in observance of Ash Wednesday, urged his colleagues to consider the possibility of redemption for juveniles who commit crimes.

“If we give them at least one ounce of hope, maybe — maybe, just maybe — they’ll redeem themselves and figure out a way to be good citizens and productive residents of this state,” he said.

Democrats on the panel questioned whether the compromise would comply with the U.S. Supreme Court rulings. They ultimately voted against the amended bill in a party-line vote.

Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, asked Bradley what other states, particularly in the Southeast, have done to comply with the rulings.

“I have at various times looked at how other states have addressed it,” Bradley replied. “But we’re Florida. Our job is to do Florida law. And I think we’ve arrived at a situation that everybody can live with.”

Bradley’s measure faces one more Senate panel, the full Appropriations Committee. He and the sponsor of the House version of the bill (HB 7035), Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa, have said they’re confident they can reach agreement on a final bill.

–Margie Menzel, News Service of Florida

2 Responses for “Life Without Parole for Juveniles: Florida Struggles to Comply With Supreme Court Ruling”

  1. Nancy N. says:

    The fact that four years after that court ruling the state of Florida still has an unconstitutional law on its books – a law that is largely used to sentence minorities – pretty much tells you everything you need to know about both the legislature and the justice system in this state.

  2. A.S.F. says:

    …Easy to say “lock ’em up and throw away the key” until it is YOUR kid/grandkid/niece/nephew/friend who happens to go down the wrong path. And too many of the people who make these kinds of pronouncements are the same ones who complain about how outrageously unfair and expensive it is to have to support the (ahem) luxurious living conditions of the incarcerated. Perhaps the idea of sentencing a 16 year old to chain-gang is preferable? We should all learn to put ourselves in another persons shoes before we make these kinds of irrevocable decisions across the board.

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