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Reform Needed for Florida's Brutal Juvenile Sentencing Laws

Florida Tops Nation in Sentencing Juveniles to Life

Florida imposes the harshest penalties in the country on juvenile offenders. The state leads the nation in sentencing offenders under the age of 18 to life in prison without the opportunity for parole for non-homicidal crimes.

  • A study conducted by Florida State University (FSU) determined that of the 109 juveniles currently serving life without parole sentences for non-murder crimes, 77 (or more than 70%) of them received their sentences in Florida courtrooms
  • Of the 77 serving life without parole sentences, six of them were 14 or younger at the time they committed the crimes
  • Florida currently is the only state in the US that sentences juveniles to life without parole for committing burglary, carjacking and battery
  • There are 24 people serving life sentences in Florida for burglary crimes they committed as juveniles

The FSU study concluded that Florida was "unique" and "out of step" with the rest of the country in imposing such unforgiving life sentences on young offenders.

Constitutionality of Life without Parole Sentences under Review

Florida's draconian method of punishing juvenile offenders has not escaped national attention. Recently, the US Supreme Court reviewed the constitutionality of sentencing juveniles who commit non-murder crimes to life prison terms without the possibility of parole.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments late in 2009 on the combined Florida cases Sullivan v. Florida and Graham v. Florida. In both cases, the juvenile was sentenced to life without parole for a non-murder crime. In Sullivan, the offender was 13-years-old at the time he was convicted of raping an elderly woman. In Graham, the offender was 17-years-old at the time he was convicted of armed burglary.

In Sullivan and Graham, the defendants are not asking the Court to reverse their sentences, but instead are requesting that they each be given an opportunity for review before the Florida Parole Commission. They are hoping the Court will extend its 2005 decision in Roper v. Simmons to their cases and find that imposing a life sentence without the opportunity of parole on juvenile offenders is a violation of the Eighth Amendment. In Roper, the Supreme Court held that it is a violation of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment to sentence 15- and 16-year-olds to the death penalty.

Reform Needed Now in Florida

Regardless of the ultimate decision issued by the US Supreme Court in the Sullivan and Graham cases, Florida needs to reform its laws now.

No other state in the country imposes such a harsh penalty on such a young offender. Numerous studies have shown that juveniles do not share the same degree of culpability as adult offenders. In the Roper decision, the US Supreme Court noted that juveniles are less mature and more impulsive than adults and that their "irresponsible conduct is not as morally reprehensible" as an adult's.

These studies all suggest that when it comes to juvenile offenders, the justice system needs to not focus only on punishing them for their bad acts, but also on rehabilitating them and giving them a second chance.

In May 2009, US Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va) introduced HR 2289, the Juvenile Justice Accountability and Improvement Act of 2009, into the House of Representatives. If passed, this law would require that certain juveniles sentenced to life in prison, in the federal system, receive a parole board review 15 years into their sentence. If not released on parole, then follow-up reviews would be scheduled for the offender every three years thereafter.

A similar measure should be undertaken in Florida. This way, those who were sentenced as juveniles to life sentences would receive an opportunity to prove that they had been adequately rehabilitated and would at least have a chance at receiving parole.

Such a system of review would be more meaningful and fair and could lead to other needed changes throughout the juvenile justice system. For example, because of the high probability of certain young offenders receiving a life without parole sentence, defense attorneys are less willing to take their cases to trial and risk their clients receiving the unforgiving sentence. Instead, they negotiate plea agreements. If there was a possibility of parole for these sentences, then more defense attorneys may be willing to take more juvenile cases to court, where they may receive a more favorable sentence.

Conclusion

It is imperative that those facing criminal charges as a juvenile seek out experienced legal representation. Florida courts impose life without parole sentences on more juveniles for non-homicidal crimes than any other state in the nation. An attorney experienced in defending criminal charges can help juveniles and their families navigate the complex Florida juvenile justice system and help them build the best possible defense against their charges.

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