Juvenile offenders still get near-life terms

Posted by on Nov 22, 2010 | Comments Off




1290408850 71 Juvenile offenders still get near life terms

TALLAHASSEE -- More than six months after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Florida's practice of sending juveniles to prison for the rest of their lives for non-murder crimes was unconstitutional, not a single former juvenile sentenced in such cases has found much relief.

Instead, Florida courts, in several high-profile cases are re-sentencing the juveniles to new terms that still amount to life sentences.

And Gov. Charlie Crist and the state Cabinet are now poised to reject the clemency case of a 15-year-old who received four life sentences for armed robberies in the Tampa Bay area.

In Crist's last Clemency Board meeting, set for Dec. 9, lawyers are asking state officials to consider the case of Kenneth Young, who is representative of a group of 116 Florida juveniles who were sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison for non-murder crimes.

So far, that appeal has gone nowhere.

Crist's apparent shunning of Young's request comes at a time when the Florida governor is attracting national headlines for his pledge to seek another pardon, for Jim Morrison, of the rock group the Doors, who has been dead for 39 years.

While Crist has given numerous interviews about the Morrison case – saying “my heart bleeds” for Morrison's family – the Young case has attracted almost no attention from the governor or other state officials, even after Florida's judicial process was condemned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Legal experts say there are at least 116 prisoners in Florida like Young – sentenced for non-murder crimes committed when they were juveniles to life in prison without chance for parole. Florida has sentenced far more juveniles to such sentences than all other states combined.

In may, the Supreme Court ruled that such sentences violate the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. but, as Young's case illustrates, Florida has done little to right that wrong.

Young, now 25, was 14 and living in Tampa when he said he was coerced by a crack dealer who was involved with Young's mother to help him in a series of hotel robberies. When he was 15, Young was sentenced to four life terms in prison for armed robbery, even though there were questions whether even the judge understood he was putting the young man away for life.

As a child, Young dreamed of being an astronaut. Now, he is a prison barber who dreams of being free.

To be sure, many, if not most, of the crimes in which juveniles were sentenced involved severe crimes such as rape or battery, and a trail of victims testifies to their heinousness.

Paolo Annino, a Florida State University law professor who with his students has taken up Young's cause and has led ground-breaking research into Florida's juvenile sentencing practices, said he believes Young has one of the strongest cases for relief.

Among other arguments, Annino noted that the trial judge who originally sentenced Young, who is 25 and has spent a decade in prison, now supports his clemency case, saying he never intended for the juvenile to spend the rest of his life in prison.

“We're still hoping the governor will grant clemency for Kenneth Young,” Annino said Friday. "We're asking for mercy."

The expected rejection of Young's comes following the landmark Graham vs. Florida ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that was based on two juvenile cases from Florida.

At the time, researchers estimated 77 Florida youths were serving life without parole sentences for non-murder crimes like robbery, carjacking and rape. but now, with a recent state appellate court ruling that expanded the definition of non-murder crimes to attempted murder cases, legal experts put the number at 116 prisoners – including Young.

And while Young's clemency case remains in limbo, other juvenile lifers are meeting similar roadblocks across the state as they seek relief from their unconstitutional sentences.

A handful have returned to the trial courts – only to receive what their lawyers call excessively long new sentences that violate the Graham ruling and effectively mean the juveniles will still spend their lives in prison.

Here are some examples:

• In Hillsborough County, a defendant, who was 13 at the time he was involved in a series of robberies and rapes, received a new 65-year sentence that will have to be served after another 27-year sentence for a separate crime.

• In Jacksonville, a youth received a new 50-year sentence for his part in an armed robbery and shooting that left a victim paralyzed.

• In Orlando, a prisoner – who was 17 at the time he raped and robbed a woman – represented himself in court and received 90 years in consecutive sentences.

Lawyers say those sentences violate the Graham ruling, where a divided U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the life sentences. The court ruled that not only were the life sentences unconstitutionally cruel but that since juveniles were different from adult prisoners they should be given a chance at rehabilitation.

In the opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy said states, like Florida, did not have to guarantee the freedom of juveniles imprisoned for non-murder crimes, but they have to provide “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”

“None of these sentences provide that,” said Bryan Gowdy, the Jacksonville lawyer who successfully argued the U.S. Supreme Court case on behalf of Terrance Graham, who received a life without parole sentence based on an armed burglary conviction.

As to how a “meaningful opportunity” for release is defined remains to be decided by further court rulings, Gowdy said.

“but I don't think anybody can reasonably argue that a 65-year or 50-year sentence provides that especially if we're just going to put the juvenile in an adult institution where no (rehabilitation) programs are made available for him or her.

“if the state of Florida wants to comply with Graham it needs to not just try to give a sentence just short of life,” Gowdy said.

Instead, Gowdy said the state needs to provide sentences where the juveniles have access to rehabilitation programs and then allow the inmates to be assessed once they mature.

A new advocacy center, partially funded by The Florida Bar, at Barry University's law school in Orlando has been created to help provide legal advice and resources for the juvenile lifers as they seek new sentences.

Ilona Vila, director of the Juvenile Life without Parole Defense Resource Center, said the lengthy new sentences being imposed on the former juveniles “really fly in the face” of the Graham decision.

“The Supreme Court is saying loud and clear that kids are different,” Vila said.

The center, which received a $100,000 grant from the state bar, is designed to identify and then make sure the Graham prisoners have access to lawyers and other legal resources. it is the center that said as many as 116 prisoners could meet those criteria, following an October decision by the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Lakeland that expanded the definition of non-murder crimes to include attempted murder.

Following the may ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, some prisoners filed motions on their own to have their sentences overturned, Vila said, and in at least one case, in Orlando, it resulted in a new 90-year term.

The center, which will also rely on lawyers and other experts who volunteer their time, will be urging the prisoners to use lawyers and to ask for full-scale sentencing hearings where they can raise a range of issues about their cases, Vila said.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers are expected to take up the issue early next year in their annual session.

And last week, the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, which represents the 20 state attorneys in Florida, endorsed a bill by Rep. Mike Weinstein, R-Jacksonville, that will set up a system for handling future juveniles who commit non-murder crimes.

Under the bill, the juveniles could still receive life sentences but they would be eligible for parole after serving at least 25 years and meeting a series of criteria, including not having discipline problems in prison, completing education programs and showing other signs of rehabilitation.

Allowing the life sentences with a chance for release is better than having a system where prosecutors try to impose lengthy sentences, only to have them overturned under the Graham decision, said Weinstein, who is a prosecutor in Jacksonville.

However, if the bill becomes a law, it would not apply to prisoners like Young and Graham and the other 116 non-murder juvenile inmates already sentenced under previous law, Weinstein said.

Instead, their fate will be decided in a series of re-sentencing cases or perhaps clemency cases before the governor and Cabinet.

“We're stuck handling them one at a time,” Weinstein said.

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