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Florida’s ‘life without parole’ punishments need to be reined in

Published: Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, August 11, 2009 at 3:58 p.m.

Society cannot afford – and should not accept — criminal justice disparities like those detailed Sunday in a Herald-Tribune article, “Florida Justice: Tough on Youths.”

The story, by Capital Bureau reporter Lloyd Dunkelberger, noted that “Florida has handed out more life sentences to juveniles for non-murder crimes than have all other states combined.”

These “life without parole” punishments slam the door forever on teenagers — sometimes before they’ve even finished middle school.

That is far too soon to give up on young people whose minds and morals are still in the formative stage.

Some of these youths probably could be rehabilitated with education and therapy while in prison. But when there is no hope of ever getting out, there is little incentive for self-improvement or good behavior.

Another disturbing aspect to the punishment is that, often, it is not meted out in an even-handed fashion. As Dunkelberger detailed, one youth involved in a robbery got life without parole, while another in the same crime was sentenced to three years.

That violates the principle of fairness in sentencing.

Perhaps the U.S. Supreme Court, which will hear lawsuits against Florida’s harsh juvenile punishment policy, will rein in the practice.

If not, advocates can look to congressional legislation. HR2289 was introduced this spring.

According to a summary by the Congressional Research Service, the bill would require states to enact laws that give juveniles a “meaningful opportunity for parole or supervised release at least once during their first 15 years of incarceration and at least once every three years thereafter …” The individuals would be reviewed to see if they still pose a threat.

Clearly, there are young killers so hardened to a life of crime that they test the limits of society’s compassion. But for those juveniles convicted of far lesser violence, a “lock ’em up and throw away the key” sentence is simply too destructive.

Florida and the nation must find a better way to deal with these offenders.

This story appeared in print on page A8

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