TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – After struggling in the past to resolve the issue, the Florida House on Tuesday unanimously approved a bill that would change juvenile-sentencing laws in cases of murders and other serious felonies.
The bill (HB 7035) stems from a pair of major U.S. Supreme Court decisions that dealt with life sentences for juveniles. The decisions have spawned legal questions in Florida courts, and House bill sponsor James Grant, R-Tampa, said lawmakers need to pass a bill or that the Florida Supreme Court will end up deciding the sentencing issues.
“I believe we have landed in a good spot,” Grant said.
In a 2010 case, known as Graham v. Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court banned life sentences without a “meaningful opportunity” for release for juveniles convicted of non-homicide crimes. And in a 2012 ruling known as Miller v. Alabama, the high court barred 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.
The House bill calls for judicial hearings and sentencing standards that would vary depending on the nature of the crimes.
As an example, 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 40 years. Also, juveniles convicted in such cases would be entitled to reviews after 25 years.
An underpinning of the U.S. Supreme Court rulings was that juveniles are 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 while in prison.
Member of both parties praised the House bill, which came after earlier legislative attempts to address the issue failed. Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said he doesn’t believe the bill goes far enough to protect juveniles from harsh sentences, but he said it is an improvement.
Grant said it will ensure that “monsters” who threaten safety will not be let out of prison but that not all juveniles would be treated that way.
The Senate version (SB 384) of the bill is expected to be heard on the Senate floor later this week.
This report is by Jim Saunders with The News Service of Florida.