Senate Seeks To Find 'Balance' In Juvenile Sentencing Debate

, Daily Business Review

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Florida Capital
Florida Capital

Pressure is on the Florida Legislature to pass a juvenile sentencing bill this year to comply with two major U.S. Supreme Court rulings—but even as a Senate panel passed a measure, the debate was still causing controversy.

The Senate Judiciary Committee became the second Senate panel to approve a bill (SB 384) by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, designed to bring Florida law in line with the high court's decisions on juvenile sentencing.

It's Bradley's second try at a solution and the Legislature's fourth attempt.

"It's a complex issue and a complex bill," Bradley said. "We're not talking about little Johnny stealing candy from the local five-and-dime store. We're talking about people who have committed murder and very serious felonies."

In a 2010 case known as Graham v. Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court banned life sentences without the chance of parole for juveniles convicted of non-homicide crimes. And in 2012, in a case known as Miller v. Alabama, the high court found that juveniles convicted of murder can still face life sentences, but judges must weigh criteria such as the offenders' maturity and the nature of the crimes before imposing that sentence.

The rulings were based on the idea that children are constitutionally different from adults and function at different stages of brain development. As a result, the court held, juvenile sentencing guidelines must offer young offenders the chance to show that they have been rehabilitated behind bars.

Since the Graham decision, the Legislature has taken up bills that would have allowed life sentences for juveniles with the possibility of release if they show signs of rehabilitation. None passed. Last year Bradley withdrew a bill from the Senate floor that would have allowed a review after 50 years; it faced opposition for being too harsh.

And given the vacuum, the justices of the Florida Supreme Court last fall suggested that they could impose a review system for juvenile sentences, when they heard cases involving 70-year and 90-year terms.

Bradley's bill outlines how that could work in Florida, with offenders who were juveniles when they committed non-homicide crimes eligible for a review after 25 years. Offenders who were juveniles when they committed homicides would be eligible for a review after 35 years.

"I think it's an appropriate balance between public safety and respect for victims' rights, but also an acknowledgement of the (U.S.) Supreme Court decision and the fact that we need to come into compliance with it," Bradley said.

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