Florida Justice: Tough on Youths


Published: Sunday, August 9, 2009 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, August 9, 2009 at 12:18 a.m.

TALLAHASSEE – While other young men were heading to college or finding their first jobs, Terrance Graham entered a state prison at the age of 19 where he will spend the rest of his life.

The Jacksonville man, in the words of his own attorney, was “no angel.” At 16, he was convicted of armed burglary. He violated his probation at 17 by fleeing police after a home invasion robbery.

Everyone agreed that Graham should be punished. Corrections officials recommended a four-year sentence. Prosecutors demanded a 30-year term. But a judge imposed the harshest sentence a juvenile criminal could face in the United States: life without parole.

Outside of Florida, no other prisoner in the nation is serving a life sentence without parole for a juvenile burglary conviction.

But in Florida, Graham’s case is not rare. Records show that Florida has handed out more life sentences to juveniles for non-murder crimes than have all other states combined.

Florida’s sentencing raises questions about cruelty as well as concerns about racial bias. While blacks represent about 16 percent of Florida’s population, and about half its prison population, 84 percent of juveniles sentenced to life without parole for non-homicide offenses were African-American.

Florida has sentenced 77 young men to spend their lives in prison, without any chance of release, based on non-homicide crimes they committed when they were 17 years old or younger, according to a preliminary study by Florida State University researchers. Six of those prisoners were 13 or 14 at the time of their crimes.

A Herald-Tribune review of state records shows that some juveniles were given life without parole for as few as one or two convictions of non-homicide crimes.

Florida’s stance has generated protests from human rights groups and a lawsuit heading to the U.S. Supreme Court, which contends such sentences violate the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

But the state shows little sign of stopping judges from imposing life sentences on juveniles or providing a path to freedom for those already in prison. Lawmakers rejected a bill last spring that would have allowed juveniles in some non-homicide cases to eventually become eligible for parole.

The controversy in Florida stands out because it differs so greatly from policies elsewhere. Florida prisoners represent 69 percent of the 111 inmates reported nationally to be serving life without parole for their non-homicide juvenile crimes. Thirty-six states have no non-homicide juvenile lifers. Researchers are still awaiting data from six states, but they do not expect Florida’s standing to change.

Other findings:

• Only Florida has sent juvenile criminals away for life for burglary, battery and carjacking. Graham is among 24 juveniles sentenced to life for burglary.

• Forty-six juveniles in Florida were given life for armed robbery.

“Florida’s practice of sentencing juvenile offenders to life without parole for non-homicide cases is unique among American states,” said the preliminary research report directed by Paolo Annino, an FSU law professor who heads the school’s Public Interest Law Center.

“It stands alone in its willingness to condemn young people for non-homicide offenses to life in prison, without a chance of a reassessment of their lives in some future time,” the report said.

Why Florida?

The Florida juveniles have been caught in two converging criminal justice trends.

The state has made it easier to try juveniles as adults at the same time it has increased the potential penalties for many crimes. Currently, Florida judges have the power to impose a life sentence without parole for more than 50 crimes.

Many of the changes came in the 1990s, when Florida was hit with a highly publicized crime wave, including the killings of nine tourists in 1992 and 1993. A British tourist was killed by a group of juveniles at an Interstate 10 rest stop in 1993 in a robbery that drew international press attention.

Since that time, Florida has sentenced 65 of the 77 non-homicide juvenile criminals to life without parole, according to the FSU researchers.

Other states are sending more juveniles into the adult prison system, too, although none of them have embraced the use of life without parole for non-homicide juvenile offenses as aggressively as Florida.

“It’s a national problem that has just taken on very dramatic examples in Florida,” said Bryan Stevenson, the director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal aid group based in Montgomery, Ala., and a lawyer for one of the juvenile offenders in the court case.

But Stevenson said the imposition of a sentence that should be reserved for unredeemable criminals is highly inappropriate for many minors given the large body of scientific evidence showing that young people are developmentally different from adults.

“Our argument is not that these kids can’t be punished, can’t be sent to prison for a very long time,” Stevenson said. “But to make a judgment that their sentences can never be reviewed for possible release is inconsistent with how we deal with kids in virtually every other context.”

Supreme Court fight

Florida’s stance against young criminals has become the focal point of a potentially landmark U.S. Supreme Court case.

In November, the country’s highest court is scheduled to hear arguments in Graham’s case and the case of Joe Sullivan, a Pensacola man convicted of rape as a 13-year-old. The court is being asked whether a life sentence without parole for juvenile offenders not guilty of homicide violates the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment.

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty for juveniles was unconstitutional and that opinion — which underscored the physical and psychological differences between a juvenile and an adult — has provided much of the legal basis for the challenge of Florida’s life-without-parole sentences for juveniles.

Florida’s harsh sentencing for juvenile crimes has drawn criticism from a wide spectrum of groups, including the American Bar Association, Amnesty International, the NAACP and the American Psychiatric Association, which have all filed briefs in the case.

A group of former juvenile criminals, including an actor, writers, a former federal prosecutor, a business executive and former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., have joined the appeal, pointing out that they were able to rehabilitate their lives despite committing serious crimes as teenagers.

“I just can’t fathom sentencing juveniles to life without parole,” said Charles Dutton, who served prison time for manslaughter but went on to drama school at Yale University and became a successful Broadway and television actor. Dutton said he had talked to some of the Florida juvenile prisoners.

“They were kids and now they’re finished. There’s a heart-wrenching sadness on their faces and you can see the fight is out of them,” Dutton said in the brief. “If they were given a second chance, they’d be changed human beings.”

Florida opposes changes

Thus far, Florida’s legal establishment has yet to bend to the criticism of its juvenile sentencing, with Attorney General Bill McCollum opposing the appeal by Graham and Sullivan. And legislation to offer parole to some young criminals, who committed their crimes when they were 15 or younger, died in the spring legislative session.

McCollum’s office asserted “the facts of the case are straightforward.”

Sullivan was convicted in a one-day trial of raping a 72-year-old woman after he and two older friends had burglarized the woman’s house earlier in the day in 1989.

The attorney general cited a pre-sentencing report that concluded Sullivan met the guidelines for a life sentence based on his prior record, which said that Sullivan had been found guilty of 17 criminal offenses in the prior two years “including several serious felonies.”

But Sullivan’s attorney said there remains “a lot of doubt” about whether his then 13-year-old client raped the elderly woman or whether the crime was carried out by one of his accomplices. Sullivan’s lawyers had asked for DNA evidence in the case to be reviewed but the state said it had been destroyed in 1993.

“That’s been a great frustration,” Stevenson said.

In sentencing Terrance Graham to life in prison, Circuit Judge Lance M. Day of Duval County called it “a sad situation,” saying Graham had a chance to turn around his life after his initial burglary conviction.

“And I don’t understand why you would be given such a great opportunity to do something with your life and why you would throw it away,” the judge told him.

Day said Graham, who was accused of leading a home invasion robbery where he held a gun to the head of the homeowner, had exhibited an “escalating pattern of criminal conduct” that did not warrant any leniency.

“It is apparent to the court that you have decided that this is the way you are going to live your life and that the only thing I can do now is to try to protect the community from your actions,” Day said, before handing down the life sentence.

Bryan Gowdy, Graham’s lawyer, said Florida is alone in imposing such a harsh sentence for a non-homicide crime like burglary.

“If you are anywhere but in Florida, you would not get this sentence,” Gowdy said.

He also pointed the disparity in sentencing for many of the others involved in the same crimes as Graham.

A teenager who joined Graham in the restaurant burglary and hit the manager in the head with a steel pipe was later charged with the armed robbery of a gas station. He received a three-year sentence for the restaurant burglary and has since been released from prison, while Graham remains behind bars for the rest of his life.

Further, Gowdy said although Graham came from a troubled background, where his parents had drug problems, he had a relatively clean record before the restaurant burglary.

“This is what makes it, I think, shocking,” Gowdy said. “You have a juvenile who had no adjudication of delinquency in the juvenile system, had no prior conviction in the adult system, and for his first offense, which is a non-homicide, he gets life without parole.”

And, Gowdy said, as a young felon, Graham has struggled in the prison system, although he has earned a high-school equivalency degree.

“He’s no angel,” Gowdy said. “And we’re not saying he shouldn’t be punished. But he should be given a chance to prove he can reform himself.”

Judge regrets decision

Even some in the legal community regret the sentencing practices.

One is J. Rogers Padgett, a retired Hillsborough County circuit judge, who says he never intended to sentence a 15-year-old Tampa youth to four consecutive life sentences without parole for participating in armed robberies in the Tampa Bay area in 2000.

“I have always been opposed to mandatory minimum sentences, except in first-degree murder convictions, it being my belief that the Department of Corrections knows best about whether and when an inmate should be released on controlled supervision,” Padgett wrote to Gov. Charlie Crist and the other members of the state Clemency Board.

“This is especially true when the inmate was sentenced as a teenager,” Padgett said. “It was not my intent at the time of his sentencing that Mr. Young never be considered for release.”

Padgett was referring to the case of Kenneth R. Young, who was 14 when he got involved with a 25-year-old crack dealer who Young said coerced him into participating in a string of hotel robberies because the dealer said Young’s mother owed him money.

“I believed (the dealer) would harm my mother if I did not obey him and I knew I had to protect my family. So I got into his car,” Young said in a statement.

Young, who once dreamed about becoming an astronaut or weatherman but dropped out of school at 13, ended up helping the dealer in five robberies, where the teenager was responsible for grabbing the money while the dealer held a gun on the victims. No one was hurt in the robberies.

Young now says his “biggest regret” was the impact of his crimes on the victims.

“They did not deserve to have this happen to them,” said Young, 23, who has served eight years in state prison. “I did this to save my family but I did not think about the pain this would cause other families. I am sorry.”

And despite his sentence, Young, who now works as a prison barber in Lake County and has a largely blemish-free prison record, said he still hopes to have his own family.

“My goal is to one day have the opportunity to show the world that I have changed,” he said.
This story appeared in print on page A1

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