Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Human Rights: New Hope for Child Offenders in Florida

Source: Human Rights Watch
Dispatches: New Hope for Child Offenders in Florida
Natalie Kato

In a series of decisions last week, the Florida Supreme Court gave real hope to people sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed before the age of 18.

These decisions follow a Florida law passed last year that largely ended juvenile life without parole in the state. Under the new law, child offenders sentenced to more than 15 years in prison must have their sentences reviewed. As part of that review the judge must consider the person’s age when the crime was committed, maturity, role in the crime, peer pressure, and potential for rehabilitation in determining whether the original sentence was correct, or if the individual has been sufficiently rehabilitated, and can be released.

The Florida legislation was in response to two US Supreme Court cases: Graham v. Florida, which found that juvenile life without parole sentences for non-homicide cases were unconstitutional, and Miller v. Alabama, which found that mandatory juvenile life without parole sentences for any crime were also unconstitutional.

Here’s how the Florida Supreme Court built on those decisions: first, it held that Milller applies retroactively. People already in prison serving juvenile life without parole sentences can now benefit from the protections in Miller. The court pointed to a 2014 Florida law, strongly supported by Human Rights Watch, that creates a review structure for children offenders sentenced for serious crimes.

Second, the Florida Supreme Court held that the protections of the 2014 law don’t just apply to juvenile life without parole sentences, but also to under-18 offenders sentenced to very long, life-equivalent sentences. (Not all courts have accepted the view that sentences of 60 years and even longer amount to life imprisonment.)

Florida has one of the highest populations of inmates sentenced under juvenile life without parole laws. With these decisions, it’s likely that over 200 inmates are now eligible to receive a review of their sentence.

Historically, Florida’s policies towards youth in prison have not been ones to emulate. The state still gives prosecutors near-unfettered power to transfer almost 2,000 child offenders to adult court each year, and sentences youth to adult prisons in Florida, whose terrible conditions are well documented. But with last year’s legislative reforms and last week’s Supreme Court rulings, Florida is making strides in protecting the human rights of children in the criminal justice system. This time, Florida got it right.