parole options for adolescents
STUDENTS IN FSU’S Children in Prison Project were inspired by Kenneth Young, sentenced to life when he was 15, to draft legislation for a chance of parole for adolescents. Pictured from the left: Donna Duncan, Marquita Green, Michelle Siegal, Chelsea Boehme, Theresa Prichard, and Clinical Professor Paolo Annino. (Not pictured: Maria Castagliuolo and Jami Coleman)
By Jan Pudlow
The classroom stretches from prison to newspaper editorial boards to the Capitol when you are a law student at Florida State University’s Public Interest Law Center.
The current mission of students in the Children in Prison Project, led by Clinical Law Professor Paolo Annino, is trying to convince legislators that children 16 or younger prosecuted as adults and sentenced to more than 10 years, including life sentences, deserve a chance at parole, if they can prove they’ve been rehabilitated behind bars.
Inspiration for HB 1137 and SB 2030 — “Children in Prison Rehabilitation Act” — came from two clients the students have come to know well and documented in a booklet they pass out to legislators:
Kenneth Young is a 22-year-old model inmate serving four consecutive life sentences for a series of armed robberies of four motels and an office he committed during a spree when he had just turned 15. Following the lead of a convicted felon and neighborhood drug dealer, Young was coerced into working for the dealer to pay off his mother’s crack debt. He didn’t hold the gun, but he took the money.
Timothy Kane was 14 and had no criminal history when he participated in a burglary, led by a 19-year-old and 17-year-old. The older boys killed a man and a woman, and Kane was sentenced to two life sentences 16 years ago.
Among 713 inmates in Florida prisons who were 16 or younger when they committed crimes, Annino and his students believe they are perfect examples of inmates who should become eligible for hearings to determine whether they have shown enough educational improvement and good behavior to be considered for parole.
“If this bill were to be passed, it doesn’t say effective June 30, 2008, the prison doors are going to swing open, or that everyone is going to be given the eligibility for parole at some point. Not at all. This is simply an opportunity,” said Donna Duncan, a former corrections officer and now a law student.
When she thinks about Kenneth Young sent to prison for life as a teenager, she thinks of her own 14-year-old son.
“Some of them have not even been on a first date or written their 10th-grade theme paper. It’s just crazy to me that we can take such people and lock them up and literally warehouse them,” Duncan said.
Theresa Prichard and Annino went to the Capitol to lobby Rep. Dick Kravitz, R-Orange Park.
“We told him we have the support of Mothers Against Murderers, a group of mothers who have lost children to violent crime. Their children are in the same situations as many of our clients. I think Rep. Kravitz is very big on victims’ rights, but I think he was very open and receptive to what we had to say,” Prichard said.
“I think if people take the time to read what we’ve put together and read what we’ve done, they will realize this is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. It takes a lot of work for the kid to be qualified for this bill. They are going to have to pull themselves up by their bootstraps — in prison — which is not easy to do.”
The students redrafted a bill Sen. Steven Geller, D-Hallandale Beach, had been trying to pass for four years.
Annino tells the students it’s an uphill battle this session to get the legislation passed. But there is always next year. At that point, Michelle Siegal puts her head in her hands and groans, while the others laugh, because she and Marquita Green will inherit the lobbying job next year, after the others have graduated.
“You put so much time and energy into this, it’s almost like you are handing off your baby. We really believe in this,” Duncan said. “If it doesn’t pass this year, look at the conversation we have started. People are listening. It might not be this year, but life without parole for juveniles is on the way out.”