By FRED GRIMM
The latest measure of Florida’s medieval mind set comes in at 77.
Juxtapose that number against the 109 juveniles in all of the United States who have been consigned to prison until death for crimes not involving murder or attempted murder.
Of the 109, 77 are locked up in Florida prisons, according to a study by the Public Interest Law Center at Florida State University.
Florida may skimp on educating children, but when it comes to perpetual incarceration for kiddies, we’re like no place else.
“We’ve far exceeded what goes on in the rest of the nation,” said Paolo Annino, the center’s supervising attorney.
The 50-state study found that 39 states have no juvenile convicts in non-homicide cases serving life without parole. After Florida, with 77, Louisiana is the next-most-draconian state on the law center’s list with 17.
ALONE AMONG NATIONS
If Florida stands alone amid the states in its fervor to lock up juveniles for life, even for nonlethal crimes, then we’re also set off from the rest of the world. Amnesty International, in a brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court, stated: “Every other country in the world has rejected the practice of giving this sentence to offenders who were under 18 at the time they committed a crime.”
The Supreme Court, during this fall’s term, will hear arguments over whether life sentences for kids convicted of crimes like armed robbery, rape and burglary so violates civilized norms that it constitutes cruel and usual punishment.
In 2005, the court tossed out the death penalty for juveniles, citing “evolving standards of decency.”
Florida, of course, would be the last place to recognize evolving standards of decency in criminal justice. (An evolving standard of decency, in more-civilized locales, would not contemplate the state stashing sex offenders into a homeless camp under the Julia Tuttle Causeway.)
Both of the juvenile life-without-parole appeals up before the court (to be heard simultaneously) are Florida cases: a 13-year-old given life for rape in 1989 and a 16-year-old armed robber sent off for life in 2005.
What is it about Florida? “I don’t think this was intended,” said Professor Annino. “It wasn’t as if Florida lawmakers decided, OK, let’s put all these kids in prison, life without parole, for non-murders. It wasn’t planned or intended as social policy,” he said. “It was more of an accident.”
Back in the early 1990s, several deadly attacks on international tourists in Florida added a sense of urgency to a get-tough-on-juvenile-crime attitude in the Legislature. Juvenile offenders “were threatening the state’s bedrock tourism industry,” the state’s lawyers explained in their Supreme Court brief. Annino said the Legislature streamlined the process to try kids as adults, with adult sentences, with little consideration of the unintended consequences.
Lawmakers surely didn’t envision 13-year-old non-killers trucked off to prison for life, although Florida has two such cases among the 77 prisoners.
But undoing get-tough legislation, no matter how crazy, requires the kind of leadership missing lately among Florida’s risk-averse politicians. So we have kids sent to prison for life and sex offenders living under the Tuttle causeway, all to honor politically intractable laws that no serious criminologists find rational.
It’s what sets Florida apart from the civilized universe.