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Florida Supreme Court Seeks Clarity on Inmates Sentenced to Life in Prison as Juveniles

| July 19, 2014

In Florida, juveniles can still spend their life in prison for crimes committed as juveniles. (Syazwan Jamaludin)

In Florida, juveniles can still spend their life in prison for crimes committed as juveniles. (Syazwan Jamaludin)

The Florida Supreme Court has asked attorneys how a new state law might affect cases dealing with inmates who were sentenced to long prison terms for committing murders or other major crimes when they were juveniles.

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The new law went into effect July 1 and was designed to carry out two landmark U.S. Supreme Court rulings based on the idea that juveniles are different from adults and function at different stages of brain development. As a result, the U.S. Supreme Court held, juvenile sentencing guidelines must offer young offenders the chance to have their cases reviewed after serving a certain number of years.

Now the question is whether the state law or the U.S. Supreme Court rulings are retroactive to sentences imposed on juveniles in the past.

Last month the Florida Supreme Court asked attorneys in cases that might be affected by the new sentencing guidelines to submit briefs on the issue. That included cases from Bay and Duval counties, where juveniles were sentenced to 70 years or more. The attorney general’s office also is expected to weigh in.

One of the U.S. Supreme Court rulings, in a 2010 case known as Graham v. Florida, banned life sentences without a “meaningful opportunity” for release for juveniles convicted of non-homicide crimes. The other ruling, in a 2012 case known as Miller v. Alabama, banned mandatory life sentences for juveniles convicted of murder. Juveniles can still face life sentences in such cases, but judges must weigh criteria such as the offenders’ maturity and the nature of the crimes before imposing that sentence.

That’s why the Florida Legislature this spring passed HB 7035, calling for judicial hearings and sentencing standards that vary depending on the nature of the crimes. Under the law, a juvenile convicted of a murder classified as a capital felony could be sentenced to life in prison after a hearing to determine whether such a sentence is appropriate. If a judge finds that a life sentence is not appropriate, the juvenile would be sentenced to at least 35 years. Also, juveniles convicted in such cases would be entitled to reviews after 25 years.

But while the new law tries to bring Florida into compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court rulings, it doesn’t mention retroactivity. Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, the law’s Senate sponsor, said it was not intended to address that issue.

“We were simply looking at a statutory scheme that was clearly unconstitutional,” the Fleming Island Republican said. “We were looking at two United States Supreme Court decisions that set forth certain parameters, and we developed a sentencing framework that complied with those two decisions. As far as how that applied individually to individual defendants, we’ll leave that to the court system.”

In the years between the U.S. Supreme Court rulings and the new law taking effect, juvenile sentencing cases have landed at the Florida Supreme Court.

As an example, one of the pending cases concerns Rebecca Falcon, who is serving a life sentence for a murder she committed in Bay County in the course of a botched robbery in 1997, when she was 15 years old. Another, from Duval County, involves Shimeeka Gridine, who was sentenced to 70 years in prison for crimes — attempted first-degree murder, attempted armed robbery and aggravated battery — committed during an attempt to rob a gas station in 2009, when Gridine was 14 years old.

“We believe that (the) Miller (ruling) itself is retroactive,” said Tania Galloni, managing attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Florida office. She said Falcon and Gridine should be entitled to re-sentencing hearings.

Falcon’s attorneys are seeking to have her mandatory sentence — life without parole — vacated under the Miller ruling, arguing that as a new rule of constitutional law, it is retroactive for the courts.

“I’m not arguing that the new (state) law should be applied retroactively,” said Karen M. Gottlieb, an attorney for Falcon. “I’m arguing that the court has an inherent power and obligation to enforce constitutional rules of law that are retroactive. … That’s an important distinction.”

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, president of the Florida Sheriffs Association, said the Florida Supreme Court faces a balancing act. On one hand, the justices must comply with the U.S. Supreme Court rulings; on the other, he said, juveniles who commit serious felonies are a threat to public safety.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has already clearly said you can’t give them what amounts to a life sentence,” Judd said. “But we’re dealing with an extremely small percentage of people who are extremely violent, and the overwhelming majority of them would be again when set free upon society.”

But Galloni of the Southern Poverty Law Center said juveniles who commit crimes are still capable of changing the course of their lives.

“I think everyone involved in policymaking should be basing their decisions not on emotion or visceral reaction but on the science, on the facts,” she said. “And we know from the science of brain development that children are going to change.”

–Margie Menzel, News Service of Florida

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10 Responses for “Florida Supreme Court Seeks Clarity on Inmates Sentenced to Life in Prison as Juveniles”

  1. Anonymous says:

    First things first! I’d like to see those serving time for marijuana offenses get their sentences reduced to time served, in light of the fact that many states have decriminalized or legalized marijuana. That would affect thousands more people than reducing juvenile murderer’s sentences. Weed never killed anyone.

  2. Sherry Epley says:

    AGAIN. . . warehousing human beings, especially children, most especially mentally ill children. . . with NO chance for treatment/rehabilitation/parole is inhumane!

  3. ted bundy says:

    so , you want these young murderers living next to you and your loved ones?? lmfao

    they are not innocent kids, now a days that ends at about 11 years old..

    by the time these thugs are 12 they know the score and MUST be held accountable..

    weed kills plenty of people, driving while high accidents and it is a gateway drug to coke/heroin and me a person who does the harder drugs who has NOT first started with pot!! you can’t!!

    • Nancy N. says:

      “weed kills plenty of people, driving while high accidents and it is a gateway drug to coke/heroin and me a person who does the harder drugs who has NOT first started with pot!! you can’t!!”

      The exact same is certainly true of alcohol and I don’t see anyone calling for it to be banned.

    • NortonSmitty says:

      Actually the gateway drug everybody in history has started with is Beer!

      And if you haven’t seen it, you gotta’ watch John Olivers report on prisons in America today. Starring our own Governor, Rick Scott. It needs to be seen by everybody:

  4. Nancy N. says:

    I’m wondering how many people here have met someone who committed a murder 25 or more years ago? I’m betting NONE. And yet so many of you will profess to know exactly what these people are like.

    Well I actually have met some people fitting that description in my time visiting at our state’s prisons. These people, I assure you, were not the foaming at the mouth violent psychopaths you are imagining. Think about what you were like as a teenager and how different you are now. Or if you are older than about 50, think about how different you were 25 years ago from how you are now. People change, evolve. Sometimes for the better. Sometimes for the worse.

    Ted Bundy: “they are not innocent kids, now a days that ends at about 11 years the time these thugs are 12 they know the score and MUST be held accountable..”

    I have an 11 year old daughter. I look around her classroom, where some of her classmates are surely 12, and I see CHILDREN who require supervision. It’s incomprehensible to me that you apparently see adults old enough to be locked up for the rest of their life. But I think your “vision” is explained by the second half of your statement, where you use the word “thugs”, a racially charged word that indicates you are really only talking about blacks when you talk about locking kids up.

  5. He'sMyRock says:

    Weed. Really……..Are you people serious. These are kids lives we’re talking about. All y’all must be high as of now. No one knows the specifics of each juvenile’s life situations or circumstances that they’ve endured. So with understanding of that, a marijuana joint is no comparison to a kids life. People do change. If you take time to out the weeds down and clear y’all minds you can begin to start embracing change also. Wow!!!!! Go figure

  6. m&m says:

    They should be sent to a controled SCARED STRAIGHT part of prision under very close supervision. If not the system will throw them back on the street hardened and they will do more serious crime. We can’t pamper these kids and pay for it later.

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