A Florida Senate committee approved a bill Monday that essentially would allow courts to continue sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole, despite rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court that such sentences are unconstitutional.
In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in a Florida case that states cannot sentence juveniles to life without possibility of parole for non-homicide crimes. In 2012, the justices ruled in an Alabama case that states cannot mandate life without parole for juveniles convicted of murder. Juveniles can still be sentenced to life, but courts first must consider mitigating factors.
The Legislature must enact legislation to align Florida’s sentencing laws with those decisions. Senate Bill 1350, which would mandate a 50-year sentence for juvenile murderers and up to 50 years for juveniles who commit other crimes, is not the right bill.
Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, the bill’s sponsor, said he chose 50 years based on life expectancy and a review of appellate court decisions. Those decisions, however, are still being litigated and may wind up before the Supreme Court.
“What you want to avoid is a number that is a de facto life sentence, and 50 (years) would not be a de facto life sentence,” Sen. Bradley said. “It was not a random number.” If Sen. Bradley wants to avoid a de facto life sentence he should pick a lower number.
Males make up the vast majority of Florida’s prison population. According to the bill analysis, 17- and 18- year old white males, on average, will live another 59.8 years; for black males, it is 54.9 years. That doesn’t take into account a study by Florida health and correctional officials that found a lower life expectancy among prison inmates. A 50-year sentence is, in essence, a life sentence.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the Florida case that a state must provide “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” Nancy Daniels, the public defender in Tallahassee, asked the committee to amend the bill so juveniles could have hearings several years after incarceration, to determine if they should be released. “If you have the hearing while the person is still a juvenile,” she said, “you don’ t know what their potential for rehabilitation, remorse, maturity and other things that are among the factors considered in (the Supreme Court cases) are going to be.”
Being tough on crime doesn’t mean forever foreclosing on second chances. That isn’t just a philosophy. It’s the the law of the land.
for The Post Editorial Board