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April 15, 2014
Juvenile sentencing bills are on the move

By Jan Pudlow
Senior Editor

Describing his bill as “plea-bargaining with the Supreme Court,” Rep. James “J.W.” Grant, R-Tampa, successfully pushed through the House a sentencing bill for juveniles who commit murder or other life felonies to bring Florida law into compliance with two U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

The floor vote was 117-0 for CS/HB 7035 on April 1, with a few Democratic members saying they wished the bill went further to help juveniles who show they can be rehabilitated, but that the bill was a good start and better than current law that won’t hold up in court.

Rep. James “J.W.” Grant “It’s been five years of plea-bargaining and babysitting a number of stakeholders in this process. Rather than try to tell you how great this bill is, I will simply beg you for your support,” said Grant, an attorney, who pushed for final passage as soon as the bill went through third reading.

“Because, understand, that if we do not get something done this year, the Supreme Court will be writing this law, and we don’t know what we will get. I believe we landed in a place . . . that is common sense, that ensures that monsters who threaten our public safety are not let out of prison, but that every juvenile sentenced is not seen somehow as a monster. We do provide a process for rehabilitation to differentiate between those two juveniles.”

Earlier, on March 21, at the House Judiciary Committee the vote was 15-0. Before approving the bill, the committee adopted an amendment that provides sentence reviews for all such juveniles, and creates a three-tier system for sentence reviews, based upon the severity of the juvenile’s crime. The bill had cleared all its committee stops and was ready to be heard on the House floor.

“So what we have tried to do is put some real penalties in place. Yesterday, a young kid, 17, was sentenced to life for a heinous, heinous crime,” Grant said. “We certainly don’t want some of these monsters who cannot be reformed to simply walk back out onto the street.”

But, as Grant noted, he crafted the bill to “thread the needle” so that Florida law is no longer at odds with the 2010 landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Graham v. Florida that held life in prison without parole is unconstitutional for juveniles who did not kill anyone, and there should be a meaningful opportunity for review whether they’ve been rehabilitated and deserve earlier release.

Florida law also clashes with Miller v. Alabama, a 2012 Supreme Court opinion that expanded Graham, holding juveniles convicted of murder cannot be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Natalie Kato, a lobbyist for Human Rights Watch, praised the amendment, saying “it embraces the fundamental idea that young people are different and are still growing and evolving. By providing a tiered system, based upon the type of crime, this amendment strikes a balance between appropriate punishment and the reduced culpability of youth. By giving broad judicial discretion at the time of sentencing and requiring multiple factors to be considered at the subsequent review hearings, this amendment truly embraces the individualized sentencing schemes intended by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Miller decision.

“Make no mistake, this is still a very tough amendment, with lengthy mandatory minimums for capital murder and a long time a juvenile has to serve before they get a chance for review,” Kato said. “However, passing this amendment today means that Florida will take the first step in joining Texas as a state that provides review for all youth serving a sentence of life in prison.”

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, an attorney who chairs the Criminal Justice Subcommittee, called it “the most challenging issue” the subcommittee dealt with over the past two years.

“What Rep. Grant has done here is pretty masterful. There are real consequences in this bill, and real mandatory minimum state prison sanctions, and there are not indefinite reviews. Some states have responded to these decisions by creating indefinite reviews forever, and that’s not what Rep. Grant has done. This is not in any way soft on juveniles. It’s compliant with what the court has said,” Gaetz said.

Judiciary Committee Chair Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, called the issue “a burdensome thing for us for several years. . . . We are about as close as we ever got to landing the plane with the Senate. . . . It will be a very defining moment for the Legislature to have accomplished this task.”

In the Senate, CS/SB 384, sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Orange Park, earlier cleared its last committee stop and was placed on the Special Order Calendar for April 4. A key difference between the bills is that the Senate bill does not provide sentence review hearings for juveniles who actually “pulled the trigger” and killed the victims.

[Revised: 07-24-2014]