Editorial: Florida Supreme Court reverses progress

A recent court decision squashes hope for many juvenile offenders
A judge's gavel and rest. [iStockphoto.com]
A judge's gavel and rest. [iStockphoto.com]

In a wrong-headed ruling the Florida Supreme Court reversed itself and thwarted progress in the treatment of juvenile offenders. A conservative court majority overruled an important 2016 decision that allowed inmates sentenced to life for crimes committed as juveniles to have a chance at a new sentence. Even as the nation moves away from overly harsh, unjust sentencing laws, Florida is returning to the bad old days.

The last decade has brought important progress in how juvenile offenders are distinguished from adult criminals. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 outlawed capital punishment for juveniles and in two recent landmark cases restricted the use of life sentences for juvenile crimes. Adolescents are different from adults, the justices held, because of their "transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequences." Florida's high court based its 2016 decision in Atwell vs. Florida on that precedent. Even though Angelo Atwell, who was convicted of murder at age 16, was technically eligible for parole, he would not be considered for release until 2130. That was tantamount to a life sentence, the majority rightly reasoned in a 4-3 decision.

Fast forward to today, and the balance of the Florida Supreme Court has tipped. Liberal Justice E.C. Perry has retired, replaced by a conservative, Alan Lawson. So the decision reversing Atwell was also 4-3, but it went the other way. In this newest case, Justice Ricky Polston wrote that imposing life sentences on juveniles with only a remote chance at parole does not violate the Eighth Amendment's guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment. No matter that the defendant in that case wouldn't be eligible for release until 2352.

Florida abolished parole long ago, but it still applies to more than 4,000 people sentenced before 1994. Those defendants are given reviews before the Florida Parole Commission every few years. But lawyers who represent the inmates say the hearings are meaningless, last 10 minutes and rarely result in release. The system bears a glaring contrast to new state law regarding juvenile sentencing passed in response to the U.S. Supreme Court cases. That requires an individual hearing in front of a judge, who must consider factors such as the defendant's age at the time of the crime, maturity and education. Nothing says juveniles who committed grievous crimes such as murder or rape should not face tough sentences, but they deserve consideration for a meaningful chance at release in the future.

Automatic life sentences and long minimum mandatory sentences gained favor around the country during the 1980s and '90s. But as racial disparities have worsened and prison costs have soared, lawmakers across the political spectrum are reconsidering that approach to criminal justice. Congress is working on a sweeping bill that would give judges more discretion and reduce minimum sentences in the federal system, and President Donald Trump supports the reforms. Florida lawmakers, including Republican Jeff Brandes and Democrat Darryl Rouson, both St. Petersburg senators, have been working for several years on state-level changes. Those include reducing state mandatory minimums and raising the dollar threshold for felony theft cases. They should add a measure guaranteeing individual hearings for juvenile offenders on the state parole list who have no meaningful chance at release.

In the wake of recent court cases and law changes, some defendants in Florida have been released. Others have had their cases reviewed and wound up with another life sentence. That is the result of judges carefully reviewing factors unique to crimes committed by juveniles. The state Supreme Court's recent ruling denies that process to juvenile offenders who are effectively serving mandatory life sentences, a punishment that has been declared unconstitutional and should be corrected.