By Jan Pudlow
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Graham v. Florida could give the “Second Chance for Children in Prison Act” a boost in the Florida Legislature.
“What I am hoping is the decision will give us added momentum to get the bill passed this coming session,” said Paolo Annino, clinical law professor at the Florida State University Public Interest Law Center, who has been working five years on proposed legislation that would bring a chance of parole for certain juveniles sentenced to adult prison.
On April 30, the last day of the session, CS/SB 184, co-sponsored by Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, and Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, made it favorably through two committees (Criminal Justice, 6-1; and Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations, 3-1) but died on the Senate calendar.
In the House, CS/HB 23, sponsored by Rep. Mike Weinstein, R-Jacksonville, a prosecutor, unanimously passed the Public Safety and Domestic Policy Committee, and received an 8-3 vote in the Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee. But the bill died when it was not calendared to be heard at its third committee stop in the Criminal and Civil Justice Policy Council.
When Annino was hospitalized from complications from a broken foot, his law students, Chantel Cooper, Nicki Mohr, Brittany Black, Alicia Jacobs, and Scott Pribble took charge in lobbying lawmakers and testifying before committees.
“I am one of the students who has been working on the bill for the past two years,” said Black. “It was tough this year with Professor Annino being hospitalized during the fury of session, but we managed to go farther than ever with his support in the background, and with the help of Sheila Hopkins from the Florida Catholic Conference.
“I had so much hope for this year. We knew the bill inside and out and had already accomplished the toughest part about getting a bill passed: spreading the word. We met with almost every legislator that would hear the bill in committee and had overwhelming support. However, the thing I learned from this process is that a majority support is not enough. You have to have the support of the ‘power,’ the committee chairman, to get anywhere. I didn’t know that a single individual could block the movement of democracy, but that is what happened to us.”
The FSU law students even held bake sales and car washes to bring witnesses to Tallahassee to testify at the Legislature.
Five years ago, the earlier version would have allowed those who were under 18 when convicted to be eligible for consideration of parole. Over the years, the age dropped to get widespread positive support.
As amended, the bill would apply to those who were 15 or younger at the time of their offense and who were given a sentence of 10 years to life. Those applying must not have had an infraction of prison conduct for the previous two years, must have obtained a GED, and must have participated in other prison activities aimed at education or rehabilitation. Those who violated their parole would be sent back to prison to complete their sentence.
“Even though the bill didn’t make it through, being part of this process was truly amazing and something that students our age rarely get to experience. I can’t even believe that I presented the bill to so many committees and got to meet so many legislators,” Black said.
“It was tough and overwhelming at times, but the people we are fighting for make every second worth it. Knowing that we are helping those that truly deserve a second chance at life gives you motivation like nothing else. Even though I graduated this year, I will definitely be back next session to help get this bill passed. It will happen.”