Review Florida's parole policies


Legislation aimed at inmates convicted as juveniles is a start

Published: Tuesday, September 1, 2009 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, August 31, 2009 at 8:25 p.m.

Parole isn’t popular with the public — even if it’s used sparingly — and politicians know it.

Twenty-six years ago in Florida, the Legislature passed a landmark criminal-sentencing bill that called for the gradual elimination of parole. Subsequent changes in state law mean that, since 1995, no one — not even juveniles — sentenced to life in prison are eligible for parole. Today, no inmates sentenced to state prison are eligible for early release under the conditions and supervision of the parole system.

The changes occurred in response to inconsistencies in the application of parole policies, recidivism by inmates granted release and widespread dissatisfaction with the criminal justice system.

So, it’s no surprise that an effort to reauthorize the possibility of parole in a limited number of cases — involving inmates who committed crimes when they were juveniles — failed during this year’s session of the Legislature and faces tough resistance next year.

Yet there are several reasons for Florida to reconsider its blanket policies against the use of parole.

One of the most compelling reasons is Florida’s status as the state having by far the most juveniles — 77 — imprisoned for life for crimes that didn’t involve homicide.

Unusual punishment

A bill filed by state Rep. Mike Weinstein, a Republican who works in a prosecutor’s office, would make 68 of Florida’s 100,000 inmates eligible for parole. Those inmates were convicted of “non-homicide” offenses committed when they were 15 or younger and have served at least eight years.

Florida’s practice of sentencing juveniles to life in prison without a chance of parole will be tested in a case that goes before the U.S. Supreme Court in November. The question before the court will be whether Florida’s practice violates the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment.

Research by Florida State University’s Public Interest Law Center shows the practice is certainly unusual.

Florida has the third-highest number of inmates in the nation, so it follows that the state would have a lot of juveniles in prison. But, as Lloyd Dunkelberger of the Herald-Tribune’s Capital Bureau reported last month: “Florida has handed out more life sentences to juveniles for non-murder crimes than have all other states combined.”

The prevailing idea that juveniles who commit serious crimes should “do the time” is difficult to overcome. Even Weinstein agrees that, at best, juveniles facing life imprisonment made a “major mistake” and, at worst, were convicted of heinous crimes (such as rape).

Yet, a state and society should also recognize that juveniles so young that they aren’t permitted — for their own good — to drive a car, buy cigarettes or alcohol or enter into contracts ought to be given some considerations in sentencing and have an opportunity for rehabilitation and redemption.

Weinstein’s bill would provide, but not mandate, those opportunities and a chance at parole under strict conditions. A bill in Congress — HR 2289 — would do the same.

Thousands released every month

Perhaps the strongest argument in favor of parole for inmates convicted as youths is this: Though Florida has some of the toughest penal codes in the nation — inmates must serve more than 85 percent of their sentences — thousands of adult inmates are released from prison every month. They are released — with few, if any, conditions and little post-release oversight — either because their sentences, for serious offenses, expire or because of prison overcrowding.

The Department of Corrections has recognized that policies for releasing inmates is insufficient to protect public safety and give ex-prisoners a chance to be productive and crime-free. To that end, the DOC has turned two prisons into “re-entry institutions” that offer basic education, substance-abuse treatment and lessons in skills needed to transition into life on the outside.

A new, improved parole system would help the DOC choose the inmates best suited for release and then monitor their behavior, while keeping those beyond hope incarcerated. Whether or not the juveniles serving life terms for non-murder charges would be suited for parole and release from prison, no one knows. Weinstein’s bill would at least let the Parole Commission make that determination.

This story appeared in print on page A6