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Fla. Sup. Ct. Sets Boundaries for Juvenile LWOP Sentences

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By Mark Wilson, Esq. on March 25, 2015 1:15 PM

In Graham v. Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court said that the Eighth Amendment didn't allow for sentencing juvenile offenders to sentences of life without parole (LWOP) for non-homicide offenses. That's all well and good, but what about "de facto LWOP" sentences of 90 years, which would, in the case of one 17-year-old offender, get him out of prison at the ripe old age of 107?

Last week, the Florida Supreme Court issued opinions in four such juvenile life sentence cases, concluding that courts can't sentence juveniles to very long prison terms for non-homicide offenses.

A Life Sentence Can Be 75 Years

Shimeeka Gridine pleaded guilty to attempted first-degree murder, attempted armed robbery, and aggravated battery at the age of 14. The court sentenced him to 70 years in prison, with a 25-year mandatory minimum.

Leighdon Henry was tried as an adult at the age of 17 for sexual battery, robbery, kidnapping, carjacking ... and the list goes on, but none of the charges was murder. The court ultimately sentenced him to 90 years in prison.

Graham dealt with a life sentence, not a term sentence, which is theoretically different. In practice, however, a "de facto" LWOP can occur when the defendant would be released well beyond his life expectancy. Graham held that, because juveniles are psychologically different from adults, they can't have the same culpability as adults and thus shouldn't be treated to the same punishments. In particular, juveniles should be given a "meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation."

The same rationale behind Graham, the Florida Supreme Court said, underlies de facto LWOP sentences. That "meaningful opportunity" to mature and turn their lives around is no less absent when a court proclaims that a juvenile defendant won't see the light of day until he or she is at least 80 years old.

What about attempted murder? Is that a "homicide offense"? It's not, said the Court, because an actual homicide is necessary for there to be a homicide offense. In an attempted homicide, there is, by definition, no homicide.

Yes, It's Retroactive

The Florida Supreme Court also took time out to address Miller v. Alabama, a U.S. Supreme Court case decided two years after Graham that extended Graham's protection to mandatory LWOP for homicide offenses.

The Court addressed the question of whether Miller is retroactive (a scenario that's actually on the U.S. Supreme Court's docket right now). As it turns out, in Florida, anyway, juveniles sentenced to life without parole for homicide crimes before Miller was decided are entitled to be resentenced.

And if you haven't had your fill of juvenile de facto LWOP, the Court rounded out the day by requiring individualized resentencing for juveniles caught in a window between when Miller was decided and when the Florida legislature brought the law into compliance two years later.

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