Florida’s 50-Year Creeps: Lawmakers Opt to Give Kids Half a Century in Prison

The U.S. Supreme Court has delivered some reasoned, just findings regarding imprisoning children. Florida seems intent on reversing them.

If state legislators have their way, this is the best worldview any child convicted of a capital crime in Florida can expect for his or her next 50 years. (Photo: Visions of America/Getty Images)

Apr 24, 2013
Allan MacDonell is TakePart’s News + Opinion editor, with a focus on social justice.

A kid would be a fool to kill someone in Florida.

Juvenile justice activists recurrently contend that the brain of a juvenile is still under construction. Any crimes committed during the formative stages of cranial development, sentencing reformers argue, should be given similar clemency considerations as the trespasses of someone suffering from acute mental impairment.

The fact that juveniles continue to commit murders in Florida, rather than dispatch their victims in any other state, is solid evidence that mental capacity is far from optimized prior to 18 years of age.

Then again, Florida’s adult brains—if the mindset of the state’s legislators is any indication—appear to function on a system of ill-logic and twisted reason that, when presented as an example to the younger generation, would confuse any child’s understanding of such basic moral delineations as good and bad; right and wrong; just and unjust; clever and moronically mean-spirited.

The United States Supreme Court is, by design, a group of the wisest, most-clear-thinking human beings in the land. You don’t need to go far to find examples of the Court’s enlightened judgment:

  • In 2005, the Supreme Court, in Roper v. Simmons, outlawed the death penalty for juveniles who were under 18 at the time of their crime.
  • In 2010, the Supreme Court, in Graham v. Florida, held that juveniles could not receive life sentences without the possibility of parole for non-homicide offenses.
  • In 2012, in Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court ruled that juveniles convicted of murder could not automatically be sentenced to life without parole.

Contrary to the Supreme Court’s guidance, both houses of the Florida state government have prepared bills that would dictate 50-year mandatory-minimum sentences for any child convicted of a murder in the state.

SB 1350, sponsored by Sen. Ron Bradley, R-Orange Park, allows that judges should conduct hearings before sentencing a child who has been convicted of homicide. The judge is bound to consider mitigating factors, including the age of the defendant, the defendant’s remorse and whether or not the young person might be redeemed.

In some measure of fairness to Florida (a state that outlawed parole in October 1983, the only state in the union to do so), some local legislators have spoken out against mandatory 50-year minimum sentences for kids as being a tad harsh.

After this deliberation, a judge is granted the discretion to impose a sentence less than life in prison, provided that sentence is at least 50 years behind bars.

“They’ve said that our method of punishing juvenile offenders is unconstitutional,” explained Bradley. “Therefore, we have an obligation to modify our juvenile statutes so they are consistent with the dictates of Graham and Miller.”

The senator from Orange Park is not alone among the Sunshine State’s wily strategists!  Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota, has joined Bradley in proving how easy it is to outsmart the United States Supreme Court.

Granted, the Court has found no constitutional basis for dictating mandatory life imprisonment without parole sentences for juvenile offenders. But it didn’t say anything about sentences of 50 years (or even 60 years or 175) without parole.

Ray Pilon is the sponsor of Florida house bill HB 7137, a crafty companion to Bradley’s sly senate measure. Pilon’s law says judges must take extenuating circumstances into account before sentencing kids convicted of a capital felony. Then, the bill generously concedes, “if the judge concludes that life imprisonment is not an appropriate sentence, the defendant shall be punished by imprisonment for a term of not less than 50 years.”

In some measure of fairness to Florida (a state that outlawed parole in October 1983), some local legislators, and church people, have spoken out against the mandatory 50-year minimum sentences as being a tad harsh.

For instance, Democratic Sen. Arthenia Joyner of Tampa felt that 50 years was an overly long minimum term. She proposed reducing the mandatory to 30 years, but was voted down.

Showing his conciliatory, clement side, Pilon noted that Florida law requires prisoners to serve 85 percent of their term. Early release is a possibility!

“Fifty years does not mean 50 years,” clarified Pilon.

In Florida, if Pilon and Bradley and their allies prevail, 50 years will mean 42 years and six months.

Unfortunately, just because a kid is capable of doing that simple math does not mean that child has the resources to move out of Florida.

For the sake of those children, the ones capable of counting, the rest of the nation cannot play the quiet, impartial observer as a key electoral state prepares legislation that is clearly opposite to the intent of the highest court of the land.

If you feel that justice should be served, but not applied like a scourge, make a phone call, send an email, raise awareness through your social media feeds.

Kids, even ones who make the worst possible decisions available to any human being, can and do change—for the better.

It doesn’t take 50 years to make that change.

Are you comfortable with children—including children who have killed—being sentenced to die in prison? Give your whys and why nots in COMMENTS.

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