By Jan Pudlow
“I’m not here as a bleeding heart liberal,” Rep. Mike Weinstein, R-Orange Park, told the Public Safety and Domestic Security Policy Committee.
Rather, he stood as a prosecutor with 15 years of experience at the Fourth Circuit’s State Attorney’s Office, sponsoring the Second Chance for Children in Prison Act of 2009 (CS/HB 757).
“I’m here because I think this is the right opportunity to look at whether we can, in fact, rehabilitate anybody,” Weinstein said. “If we don’t see any possibility of re-entry into society for these children, at some possible time, then I don’t know if we can rehabilitate anybody. These are your most malleable individuals. . . 14, 15, and 16 years old.”
Another prosecutor on the committee, Rep. Ari Porth, D-Coral Springs, thanked Weinstein for his “very progressive bill” that brings the possibility of parole for a select group of inmates sentenced to adult prison as children. They must have been 15 or younger at the time of the offense, had no prior violent criminal record, sentenced to more than 10 years, and incarcerated a minimum of eight years. The adolescents must have completed a G.E.D. and have had two years with no disciplinary reports before they are eligible to make the case that they’ve been rehabilitated.
“I admire your courage. I am still a prosecutor in Broward County and every day I work with kids who are on the deep end of the system. And there are many, I believe, who deserve a second chance, and your bill provides that,” Porth said.
The bill passed the House committee 5-4, on March 9. A similar bill (CB/SB 1430) co-sponsored by Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, and Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, unanimously passed the Senate Criminal Justice Committee on March 18. The Senate bill is now in Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations, and the House bill is now in the Criminal and Civil Justice Policy Council.
That the bill is gaining momentum in the Legislature is particularly satisfying to students at Florida State University College of Law’s Children in Prison Project, led by Clinical Law Professor Paolo Annino.
They’ve been working on the bill for years, and could not even get their bill put on a committee agenda last year.
But this year has been different. It helped to have their “poster boy” for the issue — Kenneth Young — on the front page of the St. Petersburg Times, with the sentencing judge, J. Rogers Padgett, now retired, quoted as saying, “I didn’t think when I gave Kenneth Young life that it was life without parole. At this point, I’d sign a clemency petition for him to be considered for release.”
The judge said he had not realized parole had been abolished in 1995, when he sentenced then-15-year-old Young to four consecutive life sentences eight years ago.
When Young was 14 and had no prior criminal record, he helped a 25-year-old drug dealer, whom his mother owed thousands of dollars in a crack debt, do a string of armed robberies at four hotels in the Tampa Bay area during a one-month period.
The crack dealer never fired a shot as he aimed his gun at hotel clerks, while ordering Young to remove video surveillance cameras and grab the money. In payment for his role, Young received $50 cash, a pair of Air Jordans, and a six-pack of Heineken.
Now a model inmate, Young hopes the bill passes and he will be given an opportunity before the Parole Commission to argue he deserves a second chance.
So does Donna Duncan, who graduated from FSU’s law school last year, recently took the Bar exam, and keeps in touch with Young behind bars.
“I served eight years as a correctional officer, and it opened my eyes to the incarceration of adolescents . . . .We need to look at who we are placing behind the fence with these adult offenders,” Duncan told the House committee.
“I come from a family of civil servants who have served our country and our state: military police, law enforcement officers, correctional officers. I too believe in accountability, and I also believe in consequences for our actions. This bill is needed for a safety valve for a very select group of adolescent offenders who should be given the opportunity to earn a second chance.”
Also speaking in favor of the bill was Angela Williams, president and founder of Mothers Against Murderers, who said she has lost seven children — nieces and nephews — to violence, including a 12-year-old nephew shot seven times with an AK-47 in Riviera Beach.
“I’m a strong believer in forgiveness and faith, and I believe these children deserve a second chance at life again,” Williams said. “When a child commits a crime, it’s like they’re throwing away the key, and I don’t believe they should do that. Kids can be redeemed from what they have done.”
But some members of the House committee were not comfortable giving children a second chance at freedom after being convicted of a serious crime.
“I am going to cast my vote with one thought in mind, and that is of a parent who has lost a child or someone who has been raped,” said Rep. Chris Dorworth, R-Heathrow, who said he could not tolerate asking victims to testify again and again before the Parole Commission.
Rep. John Tobia, R-Melbourne, said as a father he is not comfortable having his daughter exposed to convicted felons back on the street.
“As a taxpayer, I am more than willing to pay the $19,308 (a year) it takes to put these people behind bars,” Tobia said.
But Rep. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, said while she’s a “solid hard-on-crime person,” she once was a young girl who made mistakes.
“My father passed away when I was 14 and I hung out with children, that, by the grace of God, I am not one of these kids,” Stargel said,
“I was in a situation that fortunately shocked me back to reality, so I know from personal experience, and also from being a parent, that children do stupid things.”
While violent children need to be locked up, she said, “We need to give children a chance to be rehabilitated, because they are so vulnerable at these early ages.”