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Legislation would change sentencing for juveniles in Florida

Several years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the state of Florida to change the way it sentences juveniles who have been convicted of serious offenses, including murder and other violent crimes. The high court said that juveniles should not receive the same life-long sentences handed down to adults.

In response, the Florida Senate recently approved a bill that revamps juvenile sentencing guidelines. The bill will now go back to the House and is expected to pass without problem. Gov. Rick Scott will then have a chance to sign the bill into law.

In particular, the legislation would not allow juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses to be given life sentences without parole. In addition, before sentencing juveniles who have been convicted of murder, judges would have to take a number of factors into account, including the youth's age, personal background, maturity level and the type and nature of the crime.

The new bill also proposes a minimum 40-year prison sentence for juveniles who are convicted of capital murder and who are not given a life sentence. The sentences for juveniles convicted of murder would be eligible for review after 25 years of incarceration.

If a juvenile was found to be involved in a murder that he or she did not personally commit, then a sentencing review would be held after 15 years of incarceration. Juveniles convicted of serious offenses other than homicide would receive a review after serving 20 years. If a young person isn’t set free at that point, then another review would follow 10 years later.

What lawmakers have not yet worked out is how to handle the cases of young people currently incarcerated under sentences that do not meet the new guidelines, as the bill does not include a clause making the new guidelines retroactive. The Florida Supreme Court is currently looking at a case that could allow for 200 individuals to be resentenced under the new guidelines.

Any time a young person is accused of a serious crime, the stakes are extremely high. Prosecutors often seek the harshest possible penalties, but accused young people have the right to defend against the prosecution’s efforts. In these cases, early intervention is often the key to achieving the best possible outcome.

Source: Herald-Tribune, "Florida lawmakers reach agreement on juvenile sentencing," Lloyd Dunkelberger, April 23, 2014

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