Whether All Fla. Juveniles Deserve Second Chance At Crux Of Sentencing Reform Issue

Feb 5, 2014

Florida lawmakers say they’re not giving up on a failed effort to address juvenile sentencing reform. They’re responding to two U.S. Supreme Court decisions ruling juveniles cannot face a life sentence without the possibility of parole, even if they committed a serious felony or murder. But, the legislative effort to do that is contentious as some spar over whether these juveniles deserve a second chance.

Ex-Juvenile Offender Gets Second Chance

When Ellis Curry was 16-years-old, he was convicted of murder and armed robbery.

“Jeff Mitchell was the victim in my case. I was not the actual gunman, but I do believe I needed to be punished because I was with the gunman and I have to accept my responsibility in that role,” said Ellis Curry.

After pleading guilty, he was interviewed by the victim’s family and received a lenient sentence. And, after serving 12 years in prison, he was released in 2005. But, the now-37-year-old says it was while he was behind bars that he decided to turn his life around.

“And, I took a plea of 15 years—10 minimum mandatory, in which I served 12. Of course, my incarceration was one of the worst years of my life. But, I also made a change in my incarceration, and one of the motivations for me to change was the fact that I knew that one day I knew I was going to be released, so I made the decision to get my GED, I got two vocational trades: one in welding and one in plumbing,” he added.

Curry, joined by the victim’s father, Glen Mitchell, made his comments during a meeting of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee Wednesday. They normally travel in their community and advocate on behalf of giving jailed juvenile offenders a second chance.

He says that’s why he appreciates the part of a proposal currently under consideration by the Legislature that gives certain young offenders hope because he says he knows the power of a second chance.

“On the inside, I knew the behavior of inmates that had life sentences compared to the ones that had a little light at the end of the tunnel. Even though you may have 30, 40 years, if that inmate knows that he has a possible chance at a review at 10, 15 years, I promise you his actions will be very different,” said Curry.

Juvenile Sentencing Reform

Juvenile sentencing reform is a priority this year for House Speaker Will Weatherford–especially after a similar effort failed last year. But Tampa Republican Representative James Grant, another leader in this year’s push, says lawmakers have no choice but to make sure the state does something before a court does.

“We’re either going to get this done and have an answer, a solution that the other Chamber can get on board with or we can sit back and watch the court,” said Grant.

Under Grant’s proposal, juveniles now imprisoned for a non-homicide offense would have the possibility of having a judge review the ruling that sent them to prison. But in cases where a capital felony occurred, as in Curry’s case, juveniles must be sentenced to at least 30 years in prison, without the possibility of a judge reviewing the case.

While Curry says all juvenile offenders should at least get the chance at a review, Grant says not all young offenders are the same–so he doesn’t want a one-size-fits-all approach.

“My sole intention in tackling this reform is to make every stakeholder at least a little bit unhappy, and my commitment to you is to ensure that I do that. And, so when one side stands up and suggests that every defendant or every case is Mr. Curry, they’re wrong! Not every defendant is Mr. Curry. Not every defendant in that situation acknowledges their role, recognizes the choice they made has consequences, elects to take a plea, serves his time and elects to make a difference in the community,” added Grant.

Those on the fence regarding the measure include some Democrats, State Attorneys and public defenders. But, they say they will continue to work with Grant as the bill moves forward, which the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee unanimously agreed to do Wednesday. A similar measure authored by Fleming Island Republican Senator Rob Bradley is also moving through the Senate.

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