A recent opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court could bring dozens of previously concluded criminal cases back to Tampa Bay area courtrooms for reconsideration of sentencing. The 5-4 opinion, written by Justice Elena Kagan, held that juveniles cannot be subject to mandatory life sentences. The opinion notes that recent scientific research has shown major physiological differences in the minds of youths and the brains of adults. Youths have more “transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequences,” the opinion said.
Under mandatory sentencing statutes, those psychological factors are not taken into account. “Under these schemes, every juvenile will receive the same sentence as every other – the 17-year-old and the 14-year-old, the shooter and the accomplice, the child from a stable household and the child from a chaotic and abusive one. And still worse, each juvenile … will receive the same sentence as the vast majority of adults committing similar homicide offenses,” the opinion states.
Treating youths just like adults, instead of allowing for their differences, violates the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, according to the Court’s opinion.
So what happens now for an estimated 180 other inmates in Florida who committed first-degree murders as teenagers and who received mandatory sentences of life in prison without a chance at parole? The opinion may require the Florida Legislature to change the state law for sentencing juvenile killers.
In Florida, the two possible sentences for first-degree murder are the death penalty and life in prison without the possibility of parole. The Supreme Court previously outlawed execution for juveniles. Since that decision, anyone convicted of first-degree murder occurring before age 18 could only be given one sentence: life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Instead of sentencing every juvenile convicted of first-degree murder to life without parole, the Supreme Court now requires the sentencing judge to review each juvenile’s history, as well as the specifics of his or her crime, before deciding whether a life-without-parole sentence is appropriate. The court must have other options for circumstances in which life in prison may not be appropriate, according to the Supreme Court.
Under current law, there are no other options. The Florida Attorney General’s Office is taking the position that the state should revert back to the laws on the books before the mandatory life sentences were enacted, for relevant pending and past cases. Under previous law, the juveniles convicted of first-degree murder would be sentenced to life in prison but eligible for parole after 25 years.
At least one legislator intends to introduce a bill to require people convicted of first-degree murder for killings they commit under age 18 to be sentenced to life in prison, with judicial review after 25 years.
Hundreds of inmates in Florida’s Department of Corrections are currently serving life-without-parole sentences for offenses they committed before age 18. This includes dozens from the Tampa Bay area.