Sunset falls over the Florida Supreme Court building
Sunset falls over the Florida Supreme Court building (Phil Sears)

The Florida Supreme Court has asked attorneys how a new state law might affect cases dealing with inmates who were sentenced to long prison terms for committing murders or other major crimes when they were juveniles.

The new law went into effect July 1 and was designed to carry out two landmark U.S. Supreme Court rulings based on the idea that juveniles are different from adults and function at different stages of brain development. As a result, the U.S. Supreme Court held, juvenile sentencing guidelines must offer young offenders the chance to have their cases reviewed after serving a certain number of years.

Now the question is whether the state law or the U.S. Supreme Court rulings are retroactive to sentences imposed on juveniles in the past.

Last month the Florida Supreme Court asked attorneys in cases that might be affected by the new sentencing guidelines to submit briefs on the issue. That included cases from Bay and Duval counties, where juveniles were sentenced to 70 years or more. The attorney general’s office also is expected to weigh in.

One of the U.S. Supreme Court rulings, in a 2010 case known as Graham v. Florida, banned life sentences without a “meaningful opportunity” for release for juveniles convicted of non-homicide crimes. The other ruling, in a 2012 case known as Miller v. Alabama, banned mandatory life sentences for juveniles convicted of murder. Juveniles can still face life sentences in such cases, but judges must weigh criteria such as the offenders’ maturity and the nature of the crimes before imposing that sentence.

That’s why the Florida Legislature this spring passed HB 7035, calling for judicial hearings and sentencing standards that vary depending on the nature of the crimes. Under the law, a juvenile convicted of a murder classified as a capital felony could be sentenced to life in prison after a hearing to determine whether such a sentence is appropriate. If a judge finds that a life sentence is not appropriate, the juvenile would be sentenced to at least 35 years. Also, juveniles convicted in such cases would be entitled to reviews after 25 years.

But while the new law tries to bring Florida into compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court rulings, it doesn’t mention retroactivity. Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, the law’s Senate sponsor, said it was not intended to address that issue.

“We were simply looking at a statutory scheme that was clearly unconstitutional,” the Fleming Island Republican said. “We were looking at two United States Supreme Court decisions that set forth certain parameters, and we developed a sentencing framework that complied with those two decisions. As far as how that applied individually to individual defendants, we’ll leave that to the court system.”

In the years between the U.S. Supreme Court rulings and the new law taking effect, juvenile sentencing cases have landed at the Florida Supreme Court.

As an example, one of the pending cases concerns Rebecca Falcon, who is serving a life sentence for a murder she committed in Bay County in the course of a botched robbery in 1997, when she was 15 years old. Another, from Duval County, involves Shimeeka Gridine, who was sentenced to 70 years in prison for crimes—attempted first-degree murder, attempted armed robbery and aggravated battery—committed during an attempt to rob a gas station in 2009, when Gridine was 14 years old.

“We believe that (the) Miller (ruling) itself is retroactive,” said Tania Galloni, managing attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Florida office. She said Falcon and Gridine should be entitled to re-sentencing hearings.

Falcon’s attorneys are seeking to have her mandatory sentence—life without parole—vacated under the Miller ruling, arguing that as a new rule of constitutional law, it is retroactive for the courts.

“I’m not arguing that the new (state) law should be applied retroactively,” said Karen M. Gottlieb, an attorney for Falcon. “I’m arguing that the court has an inherent power and obligation to enforce constitutional rules of law that are retroactive. … That’s an important distinction.”

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, president of the Florida Sheriffs Association, said the Florida Supreme Court faces a balancing act. On one hand, the justices must comply with the U.S. Supreme Court rulings; on the other, he said, juveniles who commit serious felonies are a threat to public safety.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has already clearly said you can’t give them what amounts to a life sentence,” Judd said. “But we’re dealing with an extremely small percentage of people who are extremely violent, and the overwhelming majority of them would be again when set free upon society.”

But Galloni of the Southern Poverty Law Center said juveniles who commit crimes are still capable of changing the course of their lives.

“I think everyone involved in policymaking should be basing their decisions not on emotion or visceral reaction but on the science, on the facts,” she said. “And we know from the science of brain development that children are going to change.”