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Fla. courts struggle with juvenile sentencing

TALLAHASSEE — A Florida appeals court panel said Thursday that 80 years is too long to keep a juvenile locked up for a nonhomicide crime.

However, the three-judge panel of the state's 1st District Court of Appeal also said uncertainty will continue over compliance with a U.S. Supreme Court opinion that rejected absolute life sentences for juveniles who haven't killed anyone until a higher court or the Florida Legislature addresses the issue.

The judges struck down an 80-year sentence for an inmate who committed armed robberies when he was 17.

A term that long is the functional equivalent of life without parole, the appellate judges wrote as they sent the case back to a Pensacola trial court for resentencing. They also urged lawmakers to follow the high court's guidance and explore how to comply with its opinion.

Judges across the nation are struggling with the high court's decision. The 1st District's ruling conflicts with some appellate decisions in Florida and other states that have approved very long sentences.

The Supreme Court decision doesn't limit sentence length but says juveniles must get a meaningful opportunity to seek release based on maturity and rehabilitation if they have been convicted of nonhomicide crimes. It also doesn't preclude the possibility a juvenile will spend his or her life behind bars but does "forbid states from making the judgment at the outset that those offenders never will be fit to reenter society."

The high court's 5-4 decision last year reversed a life sentence that Terrance Graham had received for armed robberies committed when he was 16 and 17 in Jacksonville. The majority ruled the sentence amounted to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.

The 1st District's ruling came in the case of Antonio Demetrius Floyd, who received a new sentencing hearing as the result of the Graham case. Graham and Floyd were among about 220 inmates originally sentenced to life in Florida for nonhomicide crimes committed while they were under 18. That's more than 70 percent of the total nationally.

Floyd, now 31, committed a pair of armed robberies in Escambia County with what a prosecutor called a "realistic looking" pellet gun when he was 17 in 1998. He also received five years for auto theft. After the Graham ruling, Floyd was resentenced to two consecutive 40-year terms for the armed robberies.

That would mean he couldn't be released until 85 even if he received the maximum time off for good behavior, the appellate panel wrote in an unsigned opinion. He would be 97 if he served the full sentence.

"This situation does not in any way provide appellant with a meaningful or realistic opportunity to obtain release," the judges wrote. They cited statistics showing 85 years is beyond Floyd's life expectancy.

John Lucas, a spokesman for Attorney General Pam Bondi, said her lawyers were reviewing the decision. The options include asking for a rehearing and appealing to the Florida Supreme Court.

Bills were filed in the Legislature this year that would have helped the state comply with the Graham decision, but they did not pass. They would have let a judge reduce a sentence of 10 of more years for nonhomicide crimes committed as a juvenile once an inmate was at least 25 years old.

Fla. courts struggle with juvenile sentencing 04/12/12 [Last modified: Thursday, April 12, 2012 10:22pm]
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