Bill would require review of juveniles’ long sentences
Published: Saturday, November 16, 2013 at 6:12 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, November 16, 2013 at 6:12 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE — State Sen. Rob Bradley has proposed legislation intended to address the difficult issue of sentencing for juveniles who commit serious crimes.
Bradley, R-Fleming Island, has filed Senate Bill 384 for the Legislature’s session next spring that calls for a review of juveniles’ sentences after 25 years for those convicted of non-homicide crimes.
Bradley’s effort to change the system this year failed. That measure called for 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.
The bill failed after it was amended on the Senate floor by senators who believed Bradley’s approach was too harsh.
“The bottom line is, this is an issue that the Legislature needs to deal with this session because it’s our responsibility to define crimes and fix punishments,” Bradley said of his latest proposal.
Lawmakers are confronted with crafting a measure that will pass muster with recent state and U.S. Supreme Court decisions, while also balancing the viewpoints of state prosecutors, law enforcement, defense lawyers and juvenile advocates.
The Legislature has failed in that effort over the last three years. But heading into the 2014 session, the pressure to find a way to conform Florida’s juvenile-sentencing laws with two landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions has intensified, with the Florida Supreme Court raising the prospect of imposing its own solution if lawmakers cannot act.
At issue are juveniles convicted of serious but non-homicide crimes — for whom the U.S. Supreme Court banned life sentences in 2010 in a Florida case involving Jacksonville defendant Terrance Graham.
Lawmakers must also deal with juveniles convicted of murder, who can be sentenced to life; the Florida law must be changed to allow judges to weigh a series of mitigating factors for juveniles that were outlined in a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision.
One key component missing from Bradley’s 2013 bill was any review for the lengthy sentences for the non-homicide juveniles. Opponents said a “meaningful review” and potential release of the juveniles was a requirement under the Graham ruling.
Currently, the Florida Supreme Court is deciding two cases in which juveniles received 90- and 70-year sentences for non-homicide crimes. The juveniles’ lawyers have argued that those are “de facto” life sentences and are unconstitutional. The lawyers have asked the court to consider reviving a parole system — which lawmakers banned for new prisoners in the 1990s — to review the juvenile cases.
For the juveniles convicted of murder, Bradley’s bill would establish a set of factors that judges would consider before imposing a life sentence, including the mental maturity of the defendant and the nature of the crime. If the life sentence is rejected, the bill would impose a minimum mandatory 35-year sentence — which is a reduction from the 50 years in Bradley’s 2013 bill.
The new legislation does not provide for any type of review for sentences of juveniles convicted of murder.
Bradley, who represents Alachua, Bradford and Clay counties in the Senate, said his bill is a starting point for debate, although he said he tried to take into consideration some of the concerns raised on the Senate floor this year.
“There are a lot of folks in the criminal justice community that I have a great deal of respect for who have differing views on how best to approach this issue,” Bradley said. “I’ve set forth an approach that I’m comfortable with.”
Bradley said the Florida Supreme Court “has made it clear that the state court system does not have sufficient guidance” from lawmakers on the juvenile sentencing. “We owe it to the court system to provide that guidance,” he said.
A juvenile justice coalition that includes the public defenders, criminal defense lawyers, the Southern Poverty Law Center, ACLU and the Florida Catholic Conference does not support Bradley’s bill at this point.
The U.S. Supreme Court has indicated that parole sentences for juveniles “should be rare and subject to meaningful, periodic review,” said Natalie Kato, a lawyer and the southern state policy advocate for the Human Rights Watch, another member of the coalition. “Under this bill they would be neither, so we cannot support the bill.”
Key senators who opposed Bradley’s 2013 bill said they have concerns with Bradley’s revised approach.
Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, who has been filing legislation on juvenile sentencing since the Graham decision in 2010, said she prefers the approach that was advanced by Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, who amended Bradley’s bill in 20-19 vote on the Senate floor this year.
Garcia’s version called for a review after 25 years for juveniles convicted of both homicide and non-homicide crimes. It also allowed subsequent sentence reviews for juveniles who were turned down at their initial hearings.
“Reasonable minds should prevail and we should pass some legislation fixing this situation,” said Joyner, who is vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice, where Bradley is the chairman.
Bradley said he objects to reviews for juveniles sentenced for murders because of the potential impact on the families of the murder victims.
“I have a serious concern about revictimizing the families that had to suffer not only the loss of a loved one but would then have to suffer through multiple hearings in the future,” he said.