Florida's Juvenile Sentencing Reform Bill Advancing In Senate

Mar 5, 2014

Based on two separate Supreme Court decisions, state lawmakers are now tasked with reforming Florida’s juvenile sentencing laws. But, the Senate’s latest revamp is drawing mixed reviews.

According to the federal court decisions from 2010 and 2012, juveniles cannot be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole or some kind of review. That’s regardless of their crime whether they committed a serious felony or convicted of murder. But Florida’s state laws haven’t caught up.

As the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Budget panel’s chair, Fleming Island Republican Senator Rob Bradley is charged with fixing that in the Senate. It’s an issue he worked on last year as well, but it failed when an amendment tacked on by a fellow Republican took the bill in a direction he says he didn’t want it to go.

Bradley says in this year’s bill, those charged with a non-homicide offense would be eligible to have a judge review their case after 20 years.

“And, if the courts doesn’t modify that person sentence after 20 years, the person would be entitled to another 30 years, if they haven’t gotten out between 20 and 30 years,” said Bradley.

Under his original proposal, juveniles charged with a homicide would not have the possibility of parole regardless if they pulled the trigger or not. But, Bradley says he’s since worked out a compromise.

“Senator [Rene] Garcia had expressed concern about those felony murder individuals who did not do the actual killing and his desire that those individuals get a chance at redemption in life, and not spend 35 to life in prison. So, if they are convicted of felony murder and they did not do the actual killing, they get a chance at a hearing at 25 years,” added Bradley.

But, those convicted of the actual killing still wouldn’t have a chance at review. Miami-Dade County Public Defender Carlos Martinez says the Florida Public Defenders Association hopes Bradley will re-consider and allow those defendants to have at least a rehabilitation hearing.

“When there’s a sentence for life imprisonment or for a long-term of years, which essentially is life imprisonment, and without the opportunity for a rehabilitation review, there’s really no incentive for good behavior for these juveniles to behave because essentially we’ve thrown them away for life,” said Martinez.

Other lawmakers expressed similar reservations about supporting a bill that didn’t include a review for all juveniles, including Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith.

“Being the father of two boys and I see the adolescence brain, and I see things that they do that I can’t fathom someone even thinking of doing. They’re different now. They’re different at the age of 7 and 12. They’re different than they will be at the age of 30 and 40,” said Smith.

And, Florida State University Law Professor Paolo Annino, whose research helped inform one of the Supreme Court decisions, says research about adolescent brain development and the federal decisions make it clear the bill goes against the general principle outlined by the high court.

“Started with a case called Roper, which found the death penalty unconstitutional for juveniles, and then the next case was Graham, which found life without parole for non-homicide crimes is unconstitutional, and then the third case is Miller, that found mandatory life without parole is unconstitutional. All three cases present principles. The U.S. Supreme has not directly addressed the specific point, but if you do not provide any meaningful opportunity to review, it goes against the principles of those decisions,” said Annino.

But Umatilla Republican Senator Alan Hays says the Legislature should not be in the habit of showing leniency toward convicted killers, regardless of their age.

“I think the amendment goes plenty far, and the chairman has certainly done a laudable goal of embracing the principle of compromise without compromising your principles. And, I think that we dare not send that message that if you do if before you’re 18, you may get off,” said Hays.

While there was widespread bipartisan support for the new change regarding juvenile homicide offenses, Democrats voted against the overall measure, leaving it to pass 7-5 along party lines. Still, both Republicans and Democrats on the panel say as the bill goes forward, they want to work toward more of a compromise.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.