The Florida Legislature has passed a bill that is expected to significantly limit the state’s practice of sentencing children to die in prison.
Under HB 7035, almost every child who could have previously been sentenced to life without parole will be given the opportunity to go back before a judge to have his or her sentence reviewed after serving a specified amount of time in prison. The bill will apply to those sentenced on or after July 1, 2014.
In addition, judges will be required to conduct an individualized sentencing hearing to consider circumstances related to the youthfulness of the defendant prior to imposing a life sentence upon a youth. During the hearings, judges must consider a number of factors, including but not limited to the child’s age and maturity, role in the crime, background, and potential for rehabilitation. If a life sentence is imposed, most children will still be eligible for review after 15, 20, or 25 years, depending on the offense. After an individualized sentencing hearing, only youth with prior convictions in adult criminal court can be denied the opportunity for review later in life. HB7035 now goes to Gov. Rick Perry for his signature.
“While the legislature stopped short of completely abolishing its practice of sentencing Florida’s children to life in prison without parole for serious crimes, it took important steps that should ensure most receive a second chance at life,” said Jody Kent Lavy, director & national coordinator at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. “Florida joins a growing number of states rethinking their policies for holding youth accountable for serious crimes in light of recent Supreme Court decisions and adolescent development research finding that children are fundamentally different from adults. This is in line with a trend in support of reform of policies that fail to account for such differences.”
The bill follows rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court which found that children are constitutionally different from adults and should not be subject to our nation’s harshest penalties. The Court ruled in 2010’s Graham v. Florida that it is unconstitutional to sentence children to life in prison without the possibility of parole for non-homicide crimes. In 2012, the Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that it is unconstitutional to impose a mandatory sentence of life without parole for a crime committed as a child.
“The children in our prisons belong to all of us,” said Angela Williams, who has lost 12 family members to gun violence and is founder and executive director of the West Palm Beach-based Mothers Against Murderers Association. “By creating a system that will provide an opportunity for children convicted of serious crimes to have their sentences reviewed later in life, we acknowledge that young people can change and be rehabilitated.”
Florida is among the five states that have sentenced two-thirds of the nation’s children serving life without parole. Approximately 195 of the 2,500 youth sentenced to life without parole are incarcerated in Florida.
The coalition of organizations leading the efforts in Florida includes Human Rights Watch, Southern Poverty Law Center, Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Florida Catholic Conference, Paolo Annino and the Florida State University College of Law Public Interest Law Center, and the state’s public defenders.
“The United States has the shameful distinction of being the only country in the world that sentences its youth to life sentences without a chance at parole,” said Natalie Kato, southern US state advocate at Human Rights Watch. “By signing this bill into law, Governor Scott would be helping Florida and the country to come closer to leaving this unjust and disgraceful practice behind.”
The Campaign will continue to work with advocates in Florida to advance future reforms after this initial important step.
The Hawaii Legislature also passed a bill last week to address youth sentencing. Hawaii’s HB 2116 CD1 eliminates life without parole as a sentencing option for all children. The bill has been sent to Gov. Gov. Neil Abercrombie for his signature.