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Pressure is on the Florida Legislature to pass a juvenile sentencing bill this year to comply with two major U.S. Supreme Court rulings—but even as a Senate panel passed a measure, the debate was still causing controversy.
The Senate Judiciary Committee became the second Senate panel to approve a bill (SB 384) by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, designed to bring Florida law in line with the high court’s decisions on juvenile sentencing.
It’s Bradley’s second try at a solution and the Legislature’s fourth attempt.
“It’s a complex issue and a complex bill,” Bradley said. “We’re not talking about little Johnny stealing candy from the local five-and-dime store. We’re talking about people who have committed murder and very serious felonies.”
In a 2010 case known as Graham v. Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court banned life sentences without the chance of parole for juveniles convicted of non-homicide crimes. And in 2012, in a case known as Miller v. Alabama, the high court found that juveniles convicted of murder can still face life sentences, but judges must weigh criteria such as the offenders’ maturity and the nature of the crimes before imposing that sentence.
The rulings were based on the idea that children are constitutionally different from adults and function at different stages of brain development. As a result, the court held, juvenile sentencing guidelines must offer young offenders the chance to show that they have been rehabilitated behind bars.
Since the Graham decision, the Legislature has taken up bills that would have allowed life sentences for juveniles with the possibility of release if they show signs of rehabilitation. None passed. Last year Bradley withdrew a bill from the Senate floor that would have allowed a review after 50 years; it faced opposition for being too harsh.
And given the vacuum, the justices of the Florida Supreme Court last fall suggested that they could impose a review system for juvenile sentences, when they heard cases involving 70-year and 90-year terms.
Bradley’s bill outlines how that could work in Florida, with offenders who were juveniles when they committed non-homicide crimes eligible for a review after 25 years. Offenders who were juveniles when they committed homicides would be eligible for a review after 35 years.
“I think it’s an appropriate balance between public safety and respect for victims’ rights, but also an acknowledgement of the (U.S.) Supreme Court decision and the fact that we need to come into compliance with it,” Bradley said.
The panel also heard from a victim who urged lawmakers not to wait so long before reviewing the offender’s potential for rehabilitation.
“I believe in second chances,” said Glen Mitchell, whose son Jeff was killed in a botched robbery in Jacksonville in 1993.
What’s more, Mitchell said, that belief “has been reinforced” by working with Ellis Curry, who was part of the four-man gang that shot Jeff at Terry Parker High School.
The 37-year-old Curry came to the Capitol with Mitchell on Tuesday to urge Bradley and other lawmakers to ease the sentencing guidelines. Curry, who was 16 when he was sentenced, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and served 12 years.
Mitchell said especially in the first years after his son’s murder, he wanted the harshest sentences for those responsible.
“In my impact statement, which is public record for the sentencing of the shooter, I asked for the maximum penalty available,” Mitchell recalled. “And that’s typically what you’re going to see on most victim impact (statements) at that time.”
However, he said, that eased with time. “For some, forgiving the person who killed their loved one is part of the healing process,” he said, acknowledging that he doesn’t speak for all victims. He said Curry was the only one of Jeff’s killers to show remorse.
While behind bars, Curry learned first-hand what it was like to be on the receiving end of crime.
“I was the one being robbed. … I was the one getting beaten,” Curry told the Senate panel. “A person is going to change if they go to prison, and it’s not going to take 25 years.”
Behind bars, Curry earned his GED and two trades, welding and plumbing. Since his release, he has worked with Mitchell’s group Compassionate Families, which works with the families of murder victims. The two speak together at schools, juvenile facilities and the Duval County Re-Entry Program.
Curry told lawmakers that if Bradley’s bill had been in effect when he was sentenced, he wouldn’t have been released until 2018.
But Bradley said his bill doesn’t apply to second-degree murder, the crime for which Curry was convicted.
“I hear their concerns, but I can tell you that in that particular case, even if my bill were law, that would not have changed that particular outcome,” Bradley said after the bill passed 6-2.
The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee will take up its juvenile sentencing bill on Wednesday. It calls for reviewing juvenile offenders convicted of homicide after 25 years and juvenile offenders convicted of non-homicide crimes after 20 years.
Natalie Kato of Human Rights Watch said her group favors earlier and more frequent reviews.
“Children are sentenced to felony murder often due to susceptibility to peer pressure,” Kato said. “Many life-without-parole sentences for juveniles stem from that young person being used as a lookout or a getaway driver for an adult, resulting in a lifetime of consequences for a single night of bad decisions and the direct influence of another.”
The Senate bill goes next to the Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee, which Bradley chairs, and, if it passes, to the full Appropriations Committee.