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The complicated debate over life sentences for juveniles

Florida has spent the better part of a decade discussing whether juveniles should receive automatic life sentences for violent crimes like murder. Real change occurred in 2014 when lawmakers changed state law to allow a sentence review for people sentenced to life imprisonment as juveniles. This differs from parole, in which an inmate’s release from prison is conditional under supervision before the end of their sentence. After the inmate’s sentencing hearing, a court would decide whether rehabilitation had occurred or if they would serve the rest of their sentence in prison.

For example, Pensacola woman received a life sentence in 2010 for her role in a brutal murder. She was then 16 years old and plead no contest to the charges. When the Supreme Court ruled automatic life sentences for juveniles unconstitutional in 2014, the courts granted her another sentencing hearing to review her sentence. Unfortunately for her, the court affirmed her life sentence in 2017 and again on April 2.

Because of Florida law, she will now have to wait for the 15th year of her sentence when she’s eligible for a review. The law now states that juveniles once sentenced to terms longer than 15 years will have their sentences revisited after 15, 20 or 25 years depending on the crime.

Several factors play into a judge’s decision during these resentencing hearing:

  • The inmate’s current and former maturity levels and their role in the crime are some of the greatest factors.
  • Mental health assessment results.
  • The inmate’s education level.
  • Whether the inmate shows remorse for their crime.

That isn’t where these stories stop. As recently as 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that juveniles sentenced to life before 1994 would remain subject to the old parole laws where a parole board would review their case after 25 years to determine release. This prevents inmates sentenced before 1994 from having their life sentences reconsidered in a hearing. The court ruled that resentencing hearing applied only to sentences handed down between 1994-2014.

The battle over life sentences is so contentious for lawmakers because of the defendant’s age. While these offenses are serious, these offenders are sometimes young enough to learn from their actions. There has been an ongoing legal battle over several cases for a decade. With new faces on the Florida Supreme Court, it’s possible that this battle is far from over.

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Thomas G. Fallis, P.A.
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