201 Prisoners in a 'Quagmire'

By Dunkelberger, Lloyd | Sarasota Herald Tribune, March 9, 2014 | Go to article overview

201 Prisoners in a 'Quagmire'


Dunkelberger, Lloyd, Sarasota Herald Tribune


TALLAHASSEE

Florida's lawmakers and high court are confronted by a juvenile- justice dilemma

The fate of 201 prisoners rests with the Florida Supreme Court and the state Legislature this spring.

During the next few months, decisions by the state's lawmakers and its highest court will determine whether these prisoners spend the rest of their lives in a prison cell or may one day be released.

The prisoners were involved in the most serious of crimes: murder. But they are different from others because they committed their crimes as teenagers: One was 13, while nearly three dozen others were just 14 or 15 years old.

Research shows other troubling trends among the juveniles who were sentenced to life without parole for murder convictions:

They are disproportionately African-American. Six of every 10 of these prisoners -- some 59 percent -- are black, compared with 17 percent of Floridians, and 22 percent of the under-18 population.

Nearly all are males, with only 11 women accounting for 5 percent of the juvenile prisoners.

What Florida's justices and state lawmakers must resolve is how to deal with juveniles who have received sentences declared unconstitutionally cruel and unusual by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012.

This group of prisoners had their life-without-parole sentences finalized before the high court issued its landmark Miller vs. Alabama decision. The court did not directly address the issue of whether its ruling should apply retroactively to cases like those involving Florida's 201.

Instead, varying opinions have emerged, not just in Florida but across the country. One Florida appellate judge recently described the issue as a "constitutional quagmire."

The get-tough approach

The group of 201 prisoners also illustrates another trend in Florida's justice system: It has historically been tough on juveniles who commit serious crimes.

The state aggressively prosecutes juveniles as adults when they are involved in major crimes.

But the state's get-tough approach -- spurred in part by the highly publicized killing of a British tourist by juveniles in 1993 - - has run into a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions concluding that juveniles must be treated differently than adult criminals because they are developmentally different:

In 2005, the court banned the death penalty for juveniles.

In 2010, sentences of life without parole were banned for juveniles who have committed non-homicide crimes.

This was was followed by the 2012 Miller decision on juvenile homicides.

Research has shown that the life-without-parole punishments in Florida -- critics equate them to de facto death sentences for juvenile prisoners -- have fallen on teenagers not even old enough to attend high school. …

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