For three years, they didn’t even get a hearing before a committee. Then last year, they got a hearing and approval of their proposed bill from both a committee in the Florida House and Senate.
This year, law students from the Florida State University College of Law Public Interest Law Center have seen the bill they have been pushing pass both committees of reference in the Senate as well as a House committee. That means it is ready for floor action in the upper chamber and has a chance of being considered in the lower.
The bill would create a parole system for young offenders who were 15 or younger when they were convicted and sentenced to 10 years or more in state prisons, if they meet certain conditions.
The passion of the students has been credited with the success enjoyed by the measure this year.
“It’s because of their effort and their hard work that we’re here today on this bill,” said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, the sponsor of SB 184. She praised the “time, energy, emotion, and long hours they have put in on this project.”
Joyner made her comments April 13 as the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee approved the bill 3-1. It had already cleared the Senate Criminal Justice Committee 6-1.
Joyner also singled out law students Chantel Cooper, Nicki Mohr, and Brittany Black for their work pounding the halls working for the bill. They have been assisted by Sheila Hopkins of the Florida Catholic Conference and Michael Olenick, an attorney who has worked pro bono for the bill.
FSU law Professor Paulo Annino, who directs the Public Interest Law Center, said new law students Alicia Jacobs and Scott Pribble also have been working on the bill.
The bill is different than that originally drafted five years ago. The earlier version would have allowed those who were under 18 when convicted to use the program. Over the years, that age dropped as the students sought to line up legislative support.
“Once we went 15 and under, we’ve gotten widespread positive responses from Republican senators and Republican House members,” Annino said.
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 violate their parole would be sent back to prison to complete their sentence.
Inmates rejected under the law would have to wait seven years to reapply for parole. Annino said that was two years in the original bill, but seven years was accepted as a necessary compromise to gain support.
Joyner called the bill, “An incentive for young offenders to change, and it will provide the skills necessary for successful readmission. This is a discretionary process which involves a very small number of youths who are not being given a pass but an opportunity to prove they have been rehabilitated.
“At young ages, errors in judgment can result in a life spent without hope.”
Sen. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, said, “It’s something that is long overdue, especially in Florida. It is a step in the right direction and I applaud you for taking this on.”
Despite the successful vote, the fate of the bill was uncertain. The action at the Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee cleared the way for consideration by the full Senate, but it had not been placed on the calendar as this News went to press.
In the House, because the bill was not considered by its second and last committee of reference, it would have to be withdrawn from that committee by House action, or if the bill passes the Senate, the lower chamber could take up that bill.
“If we can get past the Senate, even if it doesn’t happen this session [passage by the whole Legislature], that would give us the momentum for the next session,” Annino said.