Last Modified: Saturday, August 29, 2009 at 7:38 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE – Florida’s decision to impose some of the harshest sentences in the country for juveniles who have committed crimes short of murder is a direct outgrowth of the state’s move to abolish parole for all prisoners.
But while some applaud the imposition of lengthy sentences without any chance for parole for violent and repeat adult criminals, others say imposing the same severe penalties on younger criminals is unfair. Some lawmakers are backing a move that would offer a chance for parole for a select group of juvenile criminals who are facing long prison sentences but committed their crimes when they were 15 years old or younger.
It would include juveniles serving sentences of more than 10 years for crimes ranging from murder to lesser offenses, such as robbery and battery. And it potentially could offer some relief to 14 of the 77 juveniles now serving life sentences without parole for non-homicide crimes — which represents the largest group of non-homicide juvenile lifers in the country.
But the “Second Chance for Children in Prison Act” may face a difficult time when the Legislature convenes in its annual session next spring. Earlier this year, a similar bill died in the House, where some legislative leaders appear to be reluctant to back off the state’s rigid stance against giving any prisoners a chance at parole.
Rep. Mike Weinstein, a Republican state prosecutor from Jacksonville who sponsored the House version of the bill, said the measure will have to overcome the Legislature’s resistance to show any retreat from decisions made in the last few decades to eliminate parole for all new prisoners.
“The Legislature worked so hard to limit parole, it’s going to take an effort to crack the door again. It’s a tiny crack but it’s still a crack,” Weinstein said. In presenting the measure to the House Public Safety and Domestic Security Policy Committee earlier this year, he called the bill a “matter of hope.”
“I’m here basically because I think this is the right opportunity to look at whether we can in fact rehabilitate anybody,” he said.
Weinstein has refiled the bill for the 2010 session. The bill, which was drafted with help from Florida State University’s Public Interest Law Center, would be limited to offenders who committed their crimes at the age of 15 or younger and who have served at least eight years in state prison.
In order to be eligible for the parole review, the juveniles would also have to have completed a high-school equivalency program and have a blemish-free prison record in the two years before the review.
Paolo Annino, the FSU law professor who heads the public interest center, said while lobbying for the bill over the last two years, he has found legislative support for the idea of offering some relief to juvenile criminals.
“The whole idea of an opportunity for rehabilitation for minors, that resonates with the American public,” Annino said.
The scope of the measure is limited. Legislative analysts estimated that would currently restrict the parole review to about 68 prisoners. Weinstein said although the bill would make that small group of prisoners eligible for a review of their sentences by the state Parole Commission, it would not guarantee their release. Instead, he said it would be up to the parole commissioners to decide which prisoners would get relief based on criteria such as whether they had a history of violence or whether they were the principals or less involved individuals in a crime.
“The bill is looking for those inmates who made one major mistake in life,” Weinstein said. “We’re looking for the ones who really were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Rep. Ari Porth, a Democratic state prosecutor in Broward County and member of the House committee on public safety, said he applauded Weinstein’s “courage” in pushing the bill.
“Every day I work with kids who are in the deep end of the system and there are many, I believe, who deserve a second chance,” Porth said.
Rep. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, who voted for the bill in the spring session, said she considers herself tough on crime and believes people “need to be held accountable.”
“I also have five children and I know that children can do stupid things if they’re with the wrong people at the wrong time,” she said.
In opposing the bill earlier this year, other House members said they were concerned about releasing potentially dangerous criminals.
Rep. John Tobia, R-Satellite Beach, said while the majority of the select group of juvenile prisoners might be successfully rehabilitated, he was worried about the potential for releasing others who might commit more crimes.
“As a taxpayer, I’m more than willing to pay the $19,308 (a year) that it takes to keep these people behind bars for the time that the judges saw fit to leave them there,” he said.
Weinstein said it may take time to convince House members to back the measure since some view it as a retreat from the state’s decision to essentially end parole for all prisoners beginning in 1983 with further restrictions imposed in the 1990s.
As for some of the prisoners who might qualify for the review, the FSU law students and legal scholars are championing the case of Kenneth Young, who received four consecutive life sentences without parole for participating in five armed robberies in the Tampa Bay area in 2000.
Young, who is now 24 and has served eight years in prison, was 14 when the robberies, which occurred over a month’s time, began. He said he was coerced into the robberies by a 25-year-old crack dealer who told him his mother owed him money.
This story appeared in print on page BN1
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