Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Kids: Florida Leads World in Life Sentences

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Kids: Florida Leads World in Life Sentences

Article excerpt

Byline: Bryan Gowdy

We must punish children when they commit serious crimes. But we must punish them in a manner that recognizes they are different than adults.

Children lack the judgment and decision-making skills of adults. Children - even children who commit horrific crimes - have the inherent capacity to reform and redeem themselves. Rarely, if ever, should a child be deemed forever incorrigible and unfit to live in civil society based solely on adolescent crimes.

Five years ago, my law firm cited these principles when we sued Florida in the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of a Jacksonville teenager who had been sentenced for an armed burglary to life without parole. In other words, he was sentenced to die in prison.

HARSH SENTENCES

Florida had a grossly disproportionate share of the children in the world serving "die in prison" sentences for non-homicides (more than 60 percent).

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Florida was violating the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause of the Constitution. The Constitution, the court ruled, required these children be given "some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation."

Two years later in another case, the court ruled that mandatory life-without-parole sentences imposed on any child, even those convicted of murder, were unconstitutional because the judge had no discretion to consider youth and other mitigating evidence when imposing the sentence.

The court did not dictate how Florida should fix its unconstitutional sentencing system. Instead, the court left it to Florida in the first instance to determine the "means and mechanisms" for fixing the system. Unfortunately, our Legislature during the last few years has failed to fix the system.

This failure has put our judges between a rock and a hard place. It is forcing them to do what legislators say judges should not do - effectively legislate from the bench. …

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