Florida is ground zero for a question that the U.S. Supreme Court is pondering: Is it constitutional for judges to send children to prison for the rest of their lives for crimes other than murder?
The case before the high court demonstrates how far out of the legal mainstream Florida is on this issue.
Nationally, just 109 prisoners are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for crimes — short of homicide — that they committed as minors. But 77 of them, more than two out of three, are in Florida. No other state comes close — California has four.
Adolescents’ developing brains work differently than adults, as two medical groups noted in filing a friend-of-the-court brief. Children are more impulsive and lack the judgment of grown-ups.
Such differences are widely acknowledged in laws that make kids wait until at least 16 to drive, 18 to vote and 21 to drink. The same reasoning led the Supreme Court in 2005 to outlaw the death penalty for crimes committed before 18.
In Florida’s brief to the high court defending the state’s juvenile sentencing law, it argued that it has the right to imprison for life criminals who are deemed permanent threats to society. Granted.
But when the criminal is a child, it’s not realistic for a judge to conclude that the growing, changing individual standing before the bench at sentencing can never be rehabilitated.
It would make far more sense to allow a parole board sometime in the future to decide whether a child convicted of a serious crime has been rehabilitated enough to get a shot at being a productive taxpaying member of society, rather than a tax-draining prisoner.
Texas and Colorado have amended their laws on juvenile sentencing to end life-without-parole sentences for children. Both states set 40 years as the maximum sentence before a parole review.
Regardless of how the Supreme Court rules, Florida shouldn’t have to be told that its practice of forever locking away minors who don’t commit murder is as unreasonable as it is unusual.
BOTTOM LINE: Court should reject locking up children for life for crimes other than murder.