A 36-year-old man sentenced to life in prison without parole when he was 15, and a 20-year-old man sentenced to 70 years in prison when he was 14 are but two of potentially hundreds of Florida inmates serving sentences that were imposed when they were juveniles who will have to have their sentences reconsidered when they were charged as adults. This is the impact of a Florida Supreme Court decision from last month, which aims to bring the state’s juvenile sentencing into line with earlier U.S. Supreme Court rulings on the same subject.
The gist of the U.S. Supreme Court decisions was that sentencing a juvenile to life in prison without parole constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and is thus unconstitutional under the U.S. Constitution. The first of those two cases concerned sentences of life without parole for convictions that did not involve a homicide; the second expanded on the first by removing the homicide consideration.
Florida prosecutors had argued unsuccessfully in the cases of the two Florida men above that if the sentence was issued before the U.S. Supreme decisions, or if a sentence of 70 years was not a life sentence, then there was no need to reconsider the original sentences. In both instances, the Florida Supreme Court disagreed, finding persuasive a counter-argument that a 70-year sentence is effectively tantamount to a life sentence.
The impact of these cases is that anyone who was sentenced to a life sentence as a juvenile, regardless of whether the possibility of parole is involved, is now entitled to a re-sentencing hearing. This does not necessarily mean that a life sentence cannot be re-imposed, but it does mean that before doing so the trial court must consider factors such as the nature of the crime and the maturity level of the defendant at the time it was committed. Re-sentencing must also take into account the requirements of a Florida law enacted last year that requires judicial review of any life sentence for a juvenile.
Cases, appeals and new statutory requirements are all items that criminal defense attorneys must stay abreast of to ensure that they provide the best possible legal representation for their clients, including juveniles accused as adults. As the matters above indicate, even a seemingly certain matter such as a sentence or its underlying conviction, are not necessarily beyond challenge, modification or even reversal.
Source: First Coast News, “Pedophile killer could finally gain his freedom,” Anne Schindler, March 31, 2015
Secondary Source: The Florida Times Union, “Florida Supreme Court throws out 70-year sentence of Jacksonville 14-year old,” Larry Hannan, March 19, 2015