Two U.S. Supreme Court cases in the past four years have undercut states’ ability to sentence juveniles to life without parole. Representative James Grant (R-Tampa) introduced a sentencing bill Tuesday to bring Florida statutes in line with these rulings.
The bill mandates parole hearings for juvenile offenders sentenced to life. The hearings would come after 25 years for people convicted of murder and after 20 years for non-homicide offenders.
But some question the bill’s timetable. Pastor Mel Harris of the Interfaith Coalition of Tampa Bay is happy to see greater opportunity for parole, but says juvenile offenders should be granted hearings sooner.
“Children change - we don’t, often, as adults. But children do, and I just want to ask that you would go a little further,” Harris said, “maybe let’s see if we can get it to ten years, Representative Grant.”
Representative Daryl Rouson (D-St. Petersburg) also voiced concerns about timing.
Rouson asked, “what’s the magic in 20 years, or 30 years for review? I think Senator Ulrich a couple of years ago had a bill that had gotten it down to 15 years to review, but what’s the thought process behind 20?”
Grant acknowledges the lack of a scientific motivation for his timetable, but says his bill’s framework is the best chance at reaching consensus in the legislature.
“We’ve got to pick something,” Grant told the subcommittee, going on to say, “the numbers before you today represent the best opportunity as we stand here today of getting something passed between both chambers, and agreed to by all stakeholders in order to get that done”
Grant warns taking no action means the Supreme Court would, in his words, “write this law for us”. Representatives from Human Rights Watch and the Florida Public Defenders Association also voiced support for the bill, but called for earlier and broader access to parole for juvenile offenders. The bill will make one final stop in the Judiciary Committee before heading to the floor for debate.