Florida Proposed Bill Would Change Juvenile Life Sentence Terms; St. Petersburg Criminal Defense Lawyer Analyzes Possible Effects of the Bill on Juvenile Offenders

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St. Petersburg criminal defense lawyer Melinda Morris discusses the proposed Florida Senate Bill 212, which aims to amend juvenile sentencing laws, and the impact this bill, if passed, would have on juvenile offender sentencing in Florida.

Florida has some of the harshest juvenile sentencing laws in the country, and is one of the few states that sentences juvenile offenders to life without parole for non-homicide offenses, said St. Petersburg criminal defense lawyer Melinda Morris.

The Florida legislature recently proposed Senate Bill 212, which would make juvenile offenders eligible for resentencing if they were convicted of a non-homicide offense in Florida, sentenced to life imprisonment and were under the age of 18 at the time the offense was committed. Melinda Morris, a St. Petersburg criminal defense lawyer, weighs in on the potential changes to juvenile sentencing in Florida.

SB 212, also known as the “Graham Compliance Act,” was filed in September 2011 and would effectively change Florida’s current juvenile sentencing laws by allowing certain convicted juvenile offenders to be eligible for resentencing.

According to Melinda Morris, a juvenile defense attorney in St. Petersburg, “Enactment of SB 212 would result in a significant improvement to the state’s current juvenile sentencing laws. Florida has some of the harshest juvenile sentencing laws in the country, and is one of the few states that sentences juvenile offenders to life without parole for non-homicide offenses.”

As stated in an article by Brittany Alana Davis in The Miami Herald on Feb. 23, the bill was proposed in order to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Graham v. Florida, where the Supreme Court decided in a 6-3 opinion to abolish juvenile life without parole sentences in non-homicide cases.

“Florida has the highest number of juvenile offenders sentenced to life without parole for non-homicide offenses of all 50 states, and is the only state that allows juveniles to be sentenced to life imprisonment for offenses such as battery, burglary and carjacking,” said Pinellas County battery attorney Morris.

Florida’s current laws, sections 985.556 through 985.57 of the Florida Statutes, provide for the transfer of juvenile cases to adult court. Depending on the circumstances surrounding the particular case, a variety of juvenile offenses can be transferred to adult criminal court. Although certain offenses require the transfer of the juvenile to adult court for trial and sentencing, the transfer of many juvenile cases is discretionary.

Discretionary cases involving the transfer of a juvenile to adult court largely depend on the age of the alleged offender, whether the offender has previously been adjudicated or convicted of any offense, the number of offenses the juvenile has previously been charged with, and the type of offense that resulted in the most recent charges.

Under section 985.56 of the Florida Statutes, any child who is charged with violating a state law that is punishable by death or life imprisonment must be tried and sentenced as an adult. Additionally, juveniles are required to be tried as an adult if they commit carjacking or auto theft offenses that resulted in serious injury.

“Other penalties currently exist in Florida’s juvenile justice system that are better alternatives to juvenile life sentences without parole. These repercussions can include shorter jail or prison terms than if the juvenile offender is sentenced as an adult, confinement in a Juvenile Detention Center, confinement to house arrest, loss of a driver’s license, imposition of a curfew, community service requirements, probation, payment of fines, and/or payment of restitution,” stated Morris, a juvenile justice attorney.

If SB 212 is passed, juvenile offenders that have been sentenced to life imprisonment without parole would be allowed to a resentencing hearing to determine if their sentence should be reduced.

In order to be granted a resentencing hearing, the juvenile offender must meet the three preliminary requirements and also have served 25 years of incarceration for the underlying offense. Additionally, the juvenile offender is only eligible if they have not received any disciplinary reports while in prison for at least three years before the scheduled resentencing hearing.

Resentencing is not mandatory if the juvenile offender is granted a hearing. The court must also look at the following factors at the resentencing hearing to determine whether or not to give the alleged offender a new sentence:

  •     The level of risk the juvenile offender imposes on society;
  •     The wishes of the victim or the opinions of the victim’s family;
  •     The level of the juvenile’s participation in the underlying offense and if duress was involved in the commission of the offense;
  •     The juvenile offender’s sincere and sustained remorse for the criminal offense;
  •     The juvenile’s age, maturity and psychological development at the time of the offense;
  •     Assistance to others or prevention of risk to others while in prison;
  •     Completion of GED requirements or other educational, technical, work, vocational or self-rehabilitation programs while in prison;
  •     The amount of sexual, physical or emotional abuse imposed on the juvenile before they committed the offense;
  •     The results of any mental health assessment, risk assessment or evaluation of the juvenile offender;
  •     The facts and circumstances of the offense for which the life sentence was imposed, including the severity of the offense; and/or
  •     Any other factor the sentencing court deems necessary.

If the court determines the juvenile is fit to re-enter society, the court may issue an order modifying the sentence and place the offender on probation for a period of 5 years. If the juvenile offender violates the conditions of their program, the court may revoke the probation and impose any sentence that could have originally imposed and the juvenile will no longer be eligible for resentencing. However, if a juvenile is not initially permitted to resentencing, they are eligible for a resentencing hearing every seven years after the date of the denial.

The Florida House of Representatives has proposed a similar bill, House Bill 5, which is also currently pending before the legislature.

Melinda Morris of the Morris Law Firm is a St. Petersburg criminal defense lawyer who represents individuals charged with criminal offenses throughout the Tampa Bay area of Florida, including Pinellas County and the surrounding areas of St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Tampa, Hillsborough, Pasco, Manatee, Sarasota, Largo, Dunedin and Bradenton.

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