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De facto life sentences for Florida juveniles: Unconstitutional?

In September, the Florida Supreme Court will hear oral arguments about whether a 70-year sentence for a violent juvenile offense violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment as defined in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 case Graham v. Florida. In that case, the nation’s high court ruled that life sentences in non-homicide juvenile cases violate the Eighth Amendment because they deny a young offender “any chance to later demonstrate that he is fit to rejoin society based solely on a non-homicide crime that he committed while he was a child in the eyes of the law."

The case before Florida’s highest court involves a petition for reconsideration of a sentence in light of Graham v. Florida. The petition comes from a Jacksonville man who was sentenced to 70 years in prison after being convicted for an attempted murder that took place when he was only 14.

"The U.S. Supreme Court made it clear that sentencing of children is different, and long sentences that are equivalent to life require constitutional scrutiny," explains a lawyer from Orlando who focuses on juvenile sentencing reform. "At some point, a multiple-year sentence is a life sentence."

According to the Sun Sentinel, while the Graham v. Florida ruling prohibited life sentences for juveniles in non-murder cases, it did not specify what an appropriate sentence would be. People who believe their sentences violate Graham must petition the courts for reconsideration -- prompting appellate courts in Florid and elsewhere to seek some clarity on the issue.

For example, a circuit court judge from Palm Beach County recently heard a reconsideration of two pre-Graham life sentences handed down to two juveniles convicted at 15 and 16 of extremely violent crimes including kidnapping and sexual battery. The judge reduced their life sentences to 60 years in prison, but he also questioned whether even 60-year sentences were appropriate as, he concluded, they “amount to de facto life sentences.”

The offenders appealed. One of them is still waiting, but in the other case, the 4th District Court of Appeal openly questioned the 60-year sentence violated Graham v. Florida. “[A]t what point does a term-of-years sentence become a de facto life sentence?" that court asked.

The point of Graham v. Florida was that juvenile offenders should be given the opportunity for rehabilitation. Florida’s Courts should consider that purpose seriously and resist the temptation to get around the ruling by sentencing teens to prison time that gives them no real chance to become healthy, contributing adults.

Source: Sun Sentinel, "Lengthy prison sentences for juveniles under scrutiny," Marc Freeman, July 14, 2013

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