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Juvenile Sentencing Bill Passes Florida House With Unanimous Bipartisan Support

MGN Online

A measure seeking to revamp the state’s juvenile life sentencing laws passed the full House Tuesday.

For several years, Florida lawmakers have struggled with how to bring state law into compliance with a couple U.S. Supreme Court decisions. Those rulings say it’s unconstitutional to give a juvenile a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

“This bill has been something that the Legislature has failed to pass for at least the past four years, and it has taken someone like Representative Grant to bring us to this point,” said Representative Matt Gaetz.

As chair of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, the Fort Walton Beach Republican tasked  Rep. James Grant (R-Tampa) with heading up this year’s effort.

“I believe we’ve landed in place that is common sense, that ensures that monsters who threaten public safety aren’t let out of prison, but that every juvenile sentenced is not seen somehow as a monster, and that we do provide a process for rehabilitation to differentiate between those two juveniles,” said Grant.

The measure splits juveniles into different groups. There are juveniles who’ve committed serious felonies, those convicted of murder, and those who participated in a murder, but didn’t actually kill anyone.

Then, based on the degree of the crime, Grant’s bill would give most juveniles a chance at review. For example, if a juvenile offender who didn’t do the actual killing is sentenced to a term of 15 years or more, a court could look at their sentence after they’ve served 15 years. They’re also eligible for two more reviews that could take place much later.

Also, for those convicted of a Capital felony charge—where the offender participated in the actual killing—a judge could give that juvenile 40 years in prison, if they feel a life sentence is too harsh.

And, Democrats, like  Rep. Darryl Rouson (D-St. Petersburg), called it a start.

“Very simply put, I want to thank Rep. Grant for making some changes since this bill was first seen in committee. There are some of us who believe that it does not go far enough to protect our juveniles from harsh sentences at a time when their brains and their psychology and emotions are still developing, but it is better than what we had,” said Rouson.

And, others, like Representative Elaine Schwartz (D-Hollywood) hoped to take another bite at the apple later down the road and revisit the issue of how long it takes for juveniles to get a review.

“And, I just sort of wish that we were in the forefront of seeing that incarceration could mean rehabilitation and that people who are in a position to be mature and the kids will be able to have review more frequently and we’re able to redeem their lives. So, at some point, when you’re in the Legislature later on, perhaps we’ll have an amendment to this, decreasing the number of years to have review.”

Still, 117 House members agreed to pass the bill Tuesday. Meanwhile, its companion could be taken up later this week on the Senate floor.

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.