TALLAHASSEE | Juveniles could be sentenced to a maximum of 50 years in prison for non-murder crimes and a minimum of 50 years for murder under a bill approved by a Senate committee on Monday.
The bill is a response to U.S. Supreme Court decisions limiting life sentences for juveniles.
Defense lawyers and juvenile advocates called the limits “harsh” — particularly the minimum-mandatory 50-year sentence for murder.
But the bill — approved in a 4-2 vote by the Senate Criminal Justice Committee — was supported by the state’s prosecutors and by the Florida Sheriffs Association.
Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said the measure (SB 1350) was designed to bring state law into line with high court rulings. One, in 2010, held life sentences without parole for juveniles who commit non-homicide crimes were unconstitutional, while another last summer limited the ability of states to impose life sentences for murders committed by juveniles.
Bradley, a former prosecutor, said the legislation “conforms our criminal statutes to the dictates” of the federal court rulings, while taking into account the “idea of deterrence” and being “mindful of the victims of crime.”
Nancy Daniels, representing the Florida Public Defenders Association, said the defense lawyers “agree there is a gap in the law” that needs to be addressed. But she said the bill did not “comply with the spirit” of the U.S. Supreme Court rulings that established different sentencing standards for juveniles because they are not as intellectually or emotionally developed as adults.
Although she called both the 50-year limit and 50- year mandatory sentence for murder “excessive,” Daniels said the defense lawyers could accept the bill if there was some provision for a periodic review of the juvenile prison sentences.
She also said the final evaluation of the juveniles should not take place at their original sentencing but 10 to 15 years later.
“You don’t know what their potential is for rehabilitation, remorse, maturity and other things that are factors,” Daniels said. “We think that the hearing should be down the line.”
Sheila Hopkins, representing the Florida Catholic Conference, noted that the House passed a bill last year setting a 25-year limit on the non-murder juvenile sentences with a seven-year review period.
Hopkins, like Daniels, asked lawmakers to include a periodic review as well as con-sider revising the 50-year provisions.
The juvenile sentences were thrown further into flux by a Supreme Court ruling last summer that held states could only impose life sentences without parole for murder after taking into account a variety of circumstances, including the nature of the crime, the juvenile’s mental and emotional maturity and the juvenile’s prior criminal history.
Florida has more than 300 juvenile prisoners who could be impacted by those rulings, including 44 who have yet to be resentenced under the 2010 Graham vs. Florida decision that held life without parole for non-murder crimes was unconstitutional for juveniles.
Another 261 juveniles are serving life sentences for murder who could be affected by the Miller vs. Alabama decision on life sentences that was issued last year.
Among those prisoners is Dominic Culpepper, who as a 15-year-old Sarasota resident was sentenced to life without parole for beating another youth to death with a baseball bat as the result of a drug deal gone bad.
However, the issue is further complicated by the fact that the Graham ruling is applied retroactively to the non-murder sentences, while the court was silent on whether the Miller ruling should be applied retroactively. Two Florida state appellate courts have held that the Miller ruling is not retroactive.
Bradley’s bill originally had a provision that would have made it retroactive for the Miller cases if the courts made that determination. But on Monday, he amended the bill to remove that provision.
Under the bill, juveniles convicted of non-murder crimes can be sentenced up to 50 years. Juveniles convicted of murder could still receive a life sentence after a review that took into account some 10 factors, including mental maturity and the nature of the crime. If the life sentence is rejected, the bill requires the judge to impose a mandatory 50-year sentence.
This story appeared in print on page A1
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