Lawmakers committed to juvenile sentencing reform
Published: Sunday, September 29, 2013 at 5:09 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, September 29, 2013 at 5:09 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE — With the courts threatening to intercede, Florida lawmakers say they are committed to finding a solution to sentencing juveniles under U.S. Supreme Court rulings that restrict the use of life sentences.
The issue is likely to be a focal point of debate in next year’s legislative session.
But lawmakers have failed to find an agreement for the past three years, leaving Florida Supreme Court justices to suggest earlier this month that they could impose a parole system to review lengthy sentences for juveniles in light of the Legislature’s inaction.
“It’s our responsibility to address this. It is unfortunate that the court is having to step in without clear guidance from the Legislature,” said state Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, a former state prosecutor whose juvenile sentencing legislation failed to pass the Senate earlier this year.
Heading toward their 2014 session, lawmakers must address two groups of juvenile offenders: juveniles convicted of non-homicide crimes, for which the U.S. Supreme Court banned life sentences in 2010; and juveniles convicted of murder, who can be sentenced to life but their punishment must follow protocols outlined by the nation’s highest court in a 2012 ruling.
In the 2013 session, the sentencing legislation failed when Bradley advanced a bill capping sentences at 50 years for non-homicide juvenile crimes and establishing a sentencing procedure for juvenile murderers, who would face a minimum 50-year sentence if they were not sentenced to life.
But senators, who believed the bill was still too harsh, amended the bill in 20-19 vote, calling for a sentence review at 25 years for the juvenile offenders. In response, Bradley killed the legislation.
He and other lawmakers say they understand the frustration of the state’s highest court, where two cases are pending involving juveniles who received 70- and 90-year sentences for non-homicide crimes. But they said they hope to resolve the issue without putting the burden on the court.
“It’s the Legislature’s duty to define crimes and fix punishment,” Bradley said, adding that lawmakers should address it in 2014 “so that we don’t put the courts in this position of trying to piece together a system of sentencing without clear guidance” from lawmakers.
Last year, the House was poised to pass Bradley’s juvenile sentencing bill, or a similar version, if it had cleared the Senate.
State Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota, who sponsored the House version of the sentencing bill, said he understood why the courts are not happy with the lack of legislative action.
“They’re pushing us to do something,” Pilon said. “I think it was kind of travesty that we couldn’t come to a compromise last year. I’m certainly hopeful that we do this year. It’s our responsibility.”
There has been tension between the Legislature and the court in recent years, with some legislative leaders suggesting the justices have intruded into the legislative arena. But some lawmakers say the failure to act on the juvenile sentencing would leave the court little choice.
“If we’re lawmakers we need to make the law,” said Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth, a member of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, which would initiate the juvenile sentencing legislation. “We talk a lot about judges acting outside their authority. But it’s hard to blame them when we don’t write the laws.”
Lawyers for an Orlando juvenile facing a 90-year sentence have suggested the state Supreme Court re-impose a parole system — which was abolished for non-capital crimes in 1983 and for all crimes in 1995 — to review lengthy juvenile sentences. In their questioning during oral arguments on the case, several justices talked about using the Parole Commission, which still exists to handle prisoners sentenced before parole was abolished.
But reviving the parole system would likely meet resistance from lawmakers.
“Parole has become a dirty word in Florida,” said House Criminal Justice Chairman Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach. “I don’t know that there is enough momentum to sort of change that cultural shift that has occurred in our state.”
Nonetheless, lawmakers generally agree that they may have to come up with some review process for the non-homicide juveniles since the U.S. Supreme Court has said they must be given “some realistic opportunity to obtain release” before the end of their prison term.
“We can call it whatever you want but we have to have that ability to go back and look,” Kerner said.
While acknowledging a review process for the non-homicide juveniles is necessary, Bradley said he would strongly resist any type of review for the juveniles convicted of murder. He said that would impose an emotional burden on the families of the crime victims, calling it unfair “to bring them back for a hearing and to go relive the crime over and over again.”
Under Bradley’s previous legislation, juveniles could be sentenced to a life sentences for murder if the judge weighed some 10 factors in the sentencing, including the offender’s level of maturity and the nature of the crime. The U.S. Supreme Court ruling has called for “individualized sentencing decisions” for juveniles based on the argument that they were different from adult offenders.
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