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June 15, 2009
No chance for Second Chance for Children in Prison Act

Bill’s sponsor promises it will be back next year

By Jan Pudlow
Senior Editor

Just when it appeared the Second Chance for Children in Prison Act was going to sail through the Senate, the chair of a key committee put the kibosh on it over in the House.

Rep. Snyder “I think what the young law students missed was the unintended consequences of moving Florida back in the direction of parole,” said Rep. Will Snyder, R-Stuart, chair of Criminal and Civil Justice Policy Council, of the proposed legislation that is an ongoing project of Florida State University law students.

Snyder — a former Metro Dade police officer who then served 13 years as a major with the Martin County Sheriff’s Office — withdrew the bill from consideration on its second committee stop.

“If you recall, Florida in the ’70s had a crime rate completely out of control. The Legislature and professionals looked at the root cause of the runaway crime rate and one of the glaring reasons was the recidivism rate. People were being sentenced to fairly long prison terms and doing 20 percent,” said Snyder.

“Overcrowding of prisons necessitated parole as a relief valve. Once we realized that and dedicated ourselves as a state to build adequate prison beds, then we went to inmates serving an 85 percent minimum. We did away with parole. Let the judge decide how much of a term is meaningful. He heard the facts. Let the criminal justice system work and not create some secondary tier that, within a few years of time, rethinks it.”

But sometimes the criminal justice system doesn’t work as it should, counters Paolo Annino, clinical law professor at the FSU College of Law’s Children in Prison Project.

Take the case of Kenneth Young, who was 14 and had no prior criminal record when 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.

Young was 15 in 1995 when Judge J. Rogers Padgett, of Hillsborough County, sentenced him to four consecutive life terms. Later, Judge Padgett, now retired, said he didn’t realize that life meant life in prison and that parole had been abolished.

“I have always been opposed to mandatory minimum sentences, except in first degree murder convictions, it being my belief that the Department of Corrections knows best about whether and when an inmate should be released on controlled supervision,” Padgett wrote to the Office of Executive Clemency on April 16.

“This is especially true when the inmate was sentenced as a teenager. It was not my intent at the time of his sentencing that Mr. Young never be considered for release. So I support Mr. Young’s bid for consideration for clemency.”

While efforts to release Young through the clemency process will continue, Annino said, clemency is not a good substitute for the proposed legislation because it is “too cumbersome” of a process and is meant for the “rare, rare exception.”

The bills (CS/HB 757, sponsored by Rep. Mike Weinstein, R-Orange Park; and CB/SB 1430, sponsored by Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, and Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa) would have given 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 were eligible to make the case that they’ve been rehabilitated.

“The legislative process is a very slow process. It’s been compared to molasses. I think that’s accurate and probably good for democracy. It takes a while for ideas to percolate and engage,” Annino said.

“This is our second year we filed the bill. We did so much better than last year when we weren’t even able to get a committee meeting. This year, it passed unanimously in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. From everyone we talked to in the Senate, it appeared it was going to fly through the Senate. All that education and discussion really paid off in the Senate. In the House, we are still educating.”

Annino said that Florida is one of 13 states without parole, and he understands that some opposition in the House stemmed from a concern “this was going to be the start of opening up parole again in Florida. We need to explain this is different than their grandfather’s parole, where a kid automatically gets released after so many years. We created all of these conditions.

“Our theme, our message is kids are different,” Annino said.

He hopes the same legislators will again sponsor the bill that he is “tweaking” and plans to file the third time for next year’s session.

Whether Annino can tweak the bill to Snyder’s satisfaction remains to be seen.

Snyder said he thinks the bill provides for “an egregious system where victims every two years are coming to Tallahassee, from far-flung parts of the state, to the Parole Commission to relive the crimes against them. I could not in good conscience allow under my watch the move back in that direction.

“Mr. Annino has several dozen constituents in prison. I have 18 million Floridians whose public safety is my concern,” Snyder said.

“There are all kinds of special groups in prison that a compassionate person could say, ‘What are they doing there?’ The elderly, those with minimum IQs, abused people,” Snyder said. “We live in a broken system in many respects.”

Annino and his band of committed law students are determined to fix the part of the system that currently does not give a second chance to children sent to prison forever, even when they show evidence of rehabilitation behind bars. They call their proposed legislation a “safety valve for a very select group of adolescent offenders” who should be given the opportunity to earn a second chance.

And Annino notes this very issue will be before the U.S. Supreme Court, with two Florida cases, in the fall. (see sidebar)

“The court might say, ‘You can’t do this without parole,’” Annino said. “Either the Legislature is going to have to act or the courts will have to act.”

[Revised: 01-12-2018]