TALLAHASSEE | Nearly four years after the U.S. Supreme Court said Florida must treat sentencing of juvenile criminals differently than adults, the state Legislature has reached agreement on a sentencing plan for juveniles who commit murder and other serious crimes.
The Senate on Wednesday voted 36-0 for a bill (HB 7035) that will bring Florida law into line with recent federal court rulings. The rulings have held juveniles cannot be sentenced to life without parole for nonhomicide crimes and that sentences for juveniles who commit murder must be weighed against factors including the youths’ maturity level and background as well as the nature of their crimes.
The compromise has the support of juvenile advocates, defense attorneys and state prosecutors.
“I’m very pleased that we have resolution of this issue,” said Sen. Rob Bradley, a former state prosecutor, who helped work out the compromise. “I feel as though it is our duty as a Legislature to give guidance to the courts and we’ve done our duty today.”
A key component is that the bill will give nearly all the juveniles serving lengthy sentences — including life — to have their sentences later reviewed by a court, with the possibility that they could be released.
The only juveniles who will be denied that review are those who commit capital murders — which would draw the death penalty or life without parole if they were adults — and who have committed previous violent crimes, such as another murder, kidnapping or armed robbery.
The juveniles who commit capital murders also will have to serve a minimum sentence of 40 years, if they are not given a life sentence, although there would not be a minimum sentence for other juvenile offenders.
Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa, predicted the House will accept the Senate version of the bill. He said he thinks the legislation balances public safety and the opportunity for rehabilitation for serious juvenile criminals.
“How do you bifurcate the monster, who no matter what we do, is never going to be reformed from the juvenile who made a mistake and is never going to show up again but needs to be held accountable for their actions?” Grant said. “I don’t know that there is a magical answer, but I think we tried to get to a place that makes sense.”
Prosecutors who resisted multiple sentence reviews for the juvenile offenders said they would support the compromise.
Bill Cervone, the state attorney for the Eighth Judicial Circuit, which includes Gainesville, said prosecutors could accept a sentencing system that allows single reviews for juveniles convicted of murder and two reviews for juveniles sentenced for nonhomicide crimes.
“We’re OK with the review process that has been put in place,” Cervone said. “We’re happy that we don’t have to deal with repeated reviews that would frequently re- traumatize victims and their families.”
The legislation creates a sentencing scheme in which judges have to weigh 10 factors before sentencing a juvenile for murder convictions, including the maturity and background of the defendant, the nature of the crime and impact on the community.
David Utter of the Southern Poverty Law Center called the legislation “an important step forward,” but added that not holding the first review for at least 15 years — or 25 years for the most serious crimes — was “still harsh.”
Natalie Kato, a spokeswoman for a coalition of juvenile advocates that includes the public defenders, criminal defense lawyers, the Southern Poverty Law Center, ACLU and Human Rights Watch, said the juvenile advocates would have liked to have seen an opportunity for more sentence reviews.
Kato, who lobbies for Human Rights Watch, said that “a bad lawyer, a bad judge, or simply a bad day could result in a wasted opportunity for a truly reformed person to reenter society.”
The legislation resolves an issue that has vexed lawmakers and Florida courts since 2010, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sentencing a Jacksonville teenager to life in prison for a robbery conviction violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court followed up with an Alabama case, ruling that juveniles could not be sentenced to life without parole for murder unless judges weigh a set of factors taking into account the special circumstances of young criminals.
But Florida lawmakers have struggled in trying to conform state law to those court rulings, failing in the last three legislative sessions to reach an agreement.
Still unresolved is the issue of Florida juveniles already serving life sentences for murder. The provisions in the bill do not retroactively apply to those prisoners.
The Florida Supreme Court is considering a case that could require the resentencing of more than 200 prisoners who were sentenced to life for murders they committed while they were under the age of 18.
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