Florida Struggles with Youth Life Sentences

Print More

Two years on, the ground-zero state in the fight over juvenile life without parole for crimes like armed robbery and rape has yet to settle what to do with such offenders.

A case before the Florida Supreme Court may lay out sentencing guidance before the dragging state Legislature decides how to sentence for crimes that are now getting between four and 170 years.

There are 115 inmates eligible for a resentencing under the May 2010 U.S. Supreme Court case of Graham v. Florida, according to Ilona Vila, director of the Juvenile Life Without Parole Defense Resource Center at Barry University School of Law in Orlando.

Florida has more Graham cases than in any other state. The Supreme Court opinion counted 129 nationwide, 77 of them in Florida. But the actual number is higher. That court tally did not count attempted murder cases, but Florida itself has since decided to add them.

In 2003, a 16-year-old Terrance Graham took part in an attempted armed robbery of a restaurant. He plead guilty and served some jail time then probation. But at 17, he was arrested in a home invasion.  That got him life without parole.

He appealed that sentence all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The court invalidated sentences like his: life without parole for crimes other than homicide. The court called it cruel and unusual, given a juvenile’s “limited culpability … and the severity of these sentences.”

The court had concluded in a previous case that juvenile’s brains are not fully developed; they lack full behavior control, so that reduces their culpability. Besides that, Graham’s parents were addicted to crack cocaine, their opinion pointed out. The boy had used alcohol and marijuana for years before his first arrest. He was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

The high court’s opinion relied mainly on the biological arguments around juvenile brain development and their capacity for change to rule that such defendants must be given a “meaningful” chance at parole.

“Roughly half have been resentenced” in Florida, Vila said; the exact count depends on a number of cases on various appeals.

The four to 170-year range of sentences comes from Vila’s data, though she notes that the upper limit includes consecutive sentences. The longest single sentence, she said, is 99 years.

“There are some judges who have done a good job in listening to mitigating factors,” she said, while “other judges appear to not be doing any analysis on the developmental piece.”

Those “developmental” pieces are the mitigating factors like youth brain development and impulsivity that the Supreme Court said mean reduced culpability. The ruling was meant to protect juveniles who have a capacity for change from life sentences. The Court found those corrigible young people make up a big majority of juvenile offenders.

But now the battle may be around virtual life sentences. Florida is battling over how long a sentence can be without violating Graham.

In one Graham case, Judge Chet Tharpe of Florida’s Thirteenth Judicial Circuit, which covers Tampa’s Hillsborough County, resentenced convicted rapist and kidnapper Jose Walle to 65 years imprisonment.

Tharpe, a one-time juvenile court judge, said he always asked his young defendants there if they knew the difference between right and wrong. “They all knew the difference between right and wrong,” Tharpe declared at the Nov. 2010 resentencing.

“Even if you were 13 years old, you knew the difference between right and wrong. You were the mean one. You were the one carrying the gun,” he told Walle.

But the man who argued for Terrance Graham at the U.S. Supreme Court said long terms, mentioning 90 years, are “not compliant with the letter of Graham.”

It’s not based on meaningful rehabilitation,” said Bryan Gowdy, “it’s based on ‘We think you might live this long. Perhaps.’”

Three cases just landed at the Florida Supreme Court that will start to indicate if Gowdy’s or Tharpe’s argument will prevail.

Shimeek Gridine is appealing a 70-year sentence handed to him in 2010 for an attempted murder at age 14. It will serve as a lead case to the other two, which involve 80- and 90- year sentences.

If the Gridine sentence is affirmed, said Vila, then the court will try the 80-year and if necessary the 90-year sentence. So the outcome may be a Florida ceiling sentence on juveniles convicted of non-homicide crimes.

Normally, however, a state legislature sets sentencing guidelines. Florida’s has tried, but failed.

The latest attempt, called the Graham Compliance Act, would have granted an automatic sentence review after 25 years, then every seven years thereafter.

It passed the state House with bipartisan support in Feb. 2012, but the state Senate failed to act before the end of the session.

An automatic sentence review scheme may fit Florida better than parole. That’s because Florida outlawed parole in steps years ago and the state Parole Commission only oversees a shrinking caseload that predates the changes. Florida inmates now only get out early if they earn so-called “gain time” — a maximum 15 percent reduction from their sentences in exchange for very good behavior.

Terrance Graham himself has been resentenced. In 2012, a judge gave him 25 years.

Photo by Gavel Grab


One thought on “Florida Struggles with Youth Life Sentences

  1. this is not good. The point is, after 25 years the chance for rehabilitation is over. Kids should stay in the juvenile system for the best outcome regardless of crime. Vengeance and retribution are still what is being pursued here. I wonder if the judge knows the difference between right and wrong?