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Fla. Lawmakers Butt Heads Over How To Address Juvenile Life Sentences

Putting juveniles in prison for life whether they committed a homicide or not is a question Florida lawmakers are looking into this session. And, there’s a bill that would limit their maximum sentence to no more than 50 years. But, opponents of that change say it’s unfair to cap it at 50 years when kids will most likely get out when they’re much older than that.

“If the judge decides, ‘well, I’m going to automatically give them 50,’ you’re going to actually have kids who are actually going to be senior citizens by the time they serve 50 years based on their sentence,” said Shelia Hopkins with the Florida Catholic Conference.

Hopkins is referring to legislation offered by lawmakers in both the House and Senate to address a current problem when it comes to sentencing juvenile offenders for Capital offenses and non-homicide crimes.

It began when the U.S. Supreme Court decided in two separate cases that brought confusion to the system: The 2010 Graham versus Florida decision and the 2012 Miller versus Alabama decision.

In the Graham case, the Court stated that a juvenile could not be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for any offense other than a homicide. Today, there are 43 Florida inmates who received life sentences for non-homicide offenses under this decision.

Then, there’s the Miller case that states juvenile offenders who commit a homicide cannot be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. And, today, there are 222 inmates that have received a mandatory life sentence for capital murder under that decision.

With two seemingly contradictory sentencing decisions, the Florida Legislature decided to take matters into its own hands and address the problem. The House Sponsor of such an effort is Republican Representative Ray Pilon of Sarasota.

“The bill addresses Miller decision by establishing a sentencing scheme for juvenile offenders charged with homicide offenses. For Capitol felonies, the court must conduct a mandatory sentencing hearing where the court considers specified factors," said Pilon.

But, it was this provision in the bill to address the Graham case that had people much more worried.

“The bill addresses the Graham decision by prohibiting a court from sentencing a juvenile offender convicted of non-homicide offenses to life. Instead, the court must sentence the juvenile to a term not exceeding 50 years,” added Pilon.

The Florida Catholic Conference’s Hopkins says she’s concerned lawmakers are not addressing another problem: that juveniles are getting sentenced the same way as a person who’s more to blame for the crime.

She recounts the story of Tim Kane, a 14-year-old who’s life she says was falling apart and had fallen into in with a crowd of much older teens.

“The older ones says let’s rob this house, and so he was involved in a burglary. Unfortunately, when they went into the House , there were two occupants. The older kids, the 18 and 19-year-olds, killed the two occupants, which is absolutely horrible, and we know people who commit serious crimes should get serious consequences. However, Tim, at 14, was cowering in the corner and wanted to leave. The older kids would not let him leave, and said they would harm him if he left,” said Hopkins.

Tim and the other boys who had committed the burglary and killed the two people were later arrested. One got the death penalty, another a life sentence, and Hopkins says Kane, at 14, was given 25 years in prison with the possibility of parole. And, since his that time, he’s been in prison for 21 years.

“He has had no disciplinary reports, he’s earned about 20 certifications, he’s working in the print shop. His mother has since died since he’s been in prison. He actually has a church that’s been visiting him, they have a job for him, they have a place for him to live and Tim has not been given a chance to have a clemency hearing. So, there’s some unfairness there. We’re for justice, but we’re also for fairness,” Hopkins added.

She says given Kane’s story, it would be unfair to cap the sentencing at 50 years for those who had been charged with a non-homicide offense. Still despite her testimony, the bill passed in the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee.

Meanwhile, over in the other chamber, the same question was raised over in the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee. And, Democratic Senator Arthenia Joyner of Tampa offered up an amendment that would offer a different approach to how to punish juveniles.

“Not only does it have the opportunity for re-sentencing for 25 years for a homicide, 15 for non-homicide. But, if the court determines that the juvenile has been rehabilitated, then the court can give a term of prohibition and if it’s denied, then that juvenile, after five years, will have the opportunity to have a re-sentencing hearing,” said Joyner.

But, the bill’s Senate sponsor, Republican Senator Rob Bradley, says while he respects Joyner, he disagrees with that approach, saying that hers offers a choice to offender he doesn’t believe deserve one.

“Senator Joyner’s approach calls for a situation that I don’t feel is consistent with how we approach criminal justice systems in Florida now. It contemplates a return to parole for a certain class of people and that’s not something the people of Florida expect. I just don’t think it’s fair to the victims of these crimes,” said Bradley.

Joyner later withdrew her amendment, but she says she hopes to work out a compromise with Senator Bradley in the future.

The bill passed 8 to 5 in the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee Thursday with Democrats opposed.

Both the House and Senate bills have one more stop to go before they come up for a floor vote.

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

Sascha Cordner has more than ten years of public radio experience. It includes working at NPR member station WUFT-FM in Gainesville for several years. She's worked in both radio and TV, serving in various capacities as a reporter, producer and anchor. She's also a graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in telecommunications. She is the recipient of 15 awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and Edward R. Murrow. Her award-winning stories include her coverage on the infamous “Dozier School for Boys” and a feature titled "Male Breast Cancer: Lost in the Sea of Pink." Currently, Sascha serves as the host and producer of local and state news content for the afternoon news program "All Things Considered" at WFSU. Sascha primarily covers criminal justice and social services issues. When she's not reporting, Sascha likes catching up on her favorite TV shows, singing and reading. Follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter:@SaschaCordner.