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Juveniles Slip Through Cracks in Ruling

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Tallahassee, FL – Six months ago the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Florida could no longer sentence juveniles to life in prison for non-murder crimes. The court found the practice to be unconstitutional. The ruling affects over a hundred people who were juveniles when their crimes were committed, but as Lynn Hatter reports, it doesn't look like any of them are getting out of prison any time soon.

Kenneth Young was 14 years old when he was sentenced to four life sentences for armed robbery. He's now 25. Florida State University College of Law Professor Paolo Annino with the FSU Public Interest Group is trying to get his case heard before the Florida Clemency Board in December. The judge who sentenced Young has written a letter to the Clemency Board saying he should be given fair consideration for release. Annino says when Young was first sentenced, the judge didn't realize he was putting the boy away for life.

"He's been in prison now for 10 years and he's become a barber," Annino said. "And he wants to become a barber and he wants to have a family and he wants to work. There's been only one infraction in 10 years, and that was for not making his bed on a Saturday morning."

The Young case is one of more than 100 that would fall under the Graham ruling, in which the U.S. Supreme Court said it was unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life without parole sentences for non-homicide crimes. But the system is moving slowly when it comes to scheduling sentencing re-hearings for the 116 people who are eligible. Three cases have already been heard. Ilona Vila with the Barry University Center for Justice says the results of those hearings haven't done much to improve the process.

"In one case, the young man will be 47 years old before he has the opportunity to be released," Vila said. "Another defendant received 90 years in consecutive sentences, and in the most recent case that defendant won't be eligible for release until he's 91 years old."

Vila says the courts are not doing what the Graham case wanted them to do, which is to provide a meaningful opportunity for release.

"What the Supreme Court is saying is that children and kids are different, that there is an opportunity for redemption, there is an opportunity for change," she said. "That because of all the things we know about adolescent development, young people have so much opportunity to change all the way up to their 20's, even until they're 30."

FSU Law Professor Annino says the Graham decision has presented two big problems for the judicial system. One is the issue of those long sentences in place of life without parole. The high court said giving life sentences to kids for non-murder crimes violated the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishments, but do the long sentences do the same thing?

"That's the legal question that lawyers around the county are discussing," said Annino. "Can you receive 50 years after Graham? Because Graham stands for several propositions. One, it's unconstitutional to send a youth to life without parole for a non-homicide. But another proposition is that you have to consider age. What was happening was, age wasn't being considered in the sentencing process."

Florida has the highest number of juveniles in prison with life sentences for non-murder charges. The youngest of them were sentenced at 13, and the state doesn't have a minimum age for when a child can be tried as an adult. Barry University's Ilona Vila says Florida needs to look at its laws.

"Some clients have significant mental retardation issues there are significant educational issues with literacy along with being a regular adolescent whose brain is developing and changing. A lot of the folks who are Graham-eligible do have some of these really significant things that should be taken into consideration that have to do with how they are cognitively able to make the decisions that they make."

There is legislation in the works that would help address some of the problems coming out of the Graham case. Democratic Sen. Arthenia Joyner is reviving a bill called the Second Chance for Children in Prison Act.

"This bill basically sets up a system for dealing with juveniles who commit non-homicide crimes in the future," she said. "And it gives them the opportunity to be eligible for parole after serving 25 years and then meeting some other criteria."

Republican Rep. Mike Weinstein of Jacksonville is the House sponsor. Similar proposals failed in the past over concerns that they would lead to inmates being released having served only a fraction of their sentences.