When a corrections officer escorted Kenneth Young to a phone recently, the 24-year-old lifer could barely contain his excitement.
He was expecting good news about a bill called "the Second Chance Act for Children in Prison" which offered a glimmer of hope to him and a handful of other inmates, who had been sentenced as children.
He knew the bill was successfully winding its way through the state House and Senate, and thought that one of the Florida State University law school students who worked on the bill was calling to tell him that it had passed, and he might eventually be considered for release.
But the news was bad.
FSU law school student Chantel Cooper told him, instead, that "a person in the House refused to let people vote on it and the bill died."
"How can that be?" asked Young.
"A committee chairman can do that," said Cooper.
Almost a minute passed before Young spoke. "Is it over for me?" he asked.
"Maybe, but I hope not," said Cooper.
At 14, Kenneth Young accompanied a man in his mid 20s on a string of armed robberies of hotels in Tampa and St. Petersburg. The man held a gun on desk clerks while Young disabled security cameras and grabbed the cash. No shots were fired, and Young never held a weapon. He got life without parole anyway.
Now, nine years later, even the judge who sentenced Young says he wishes he could take back the sentence. If Young's prison record has been good, said J. Rogers Padgett, he'd support parole consideration for him. Turns out Young has been a model prisoner, which is why the FSU law school team chose him to be the poster child for the bill.
The Second Chance Act has been a two-year project for FSU law school professor Paolo Annino and his students, who repeatedly met with Florida legislators to garner support.
The bill says that children 15 and under at the time of their crime, who received lengthy adult sentences, can be considered for release after eight years, under strict conditions: If they were an accessory to a crime committed by an adult, rather than playing a major role, they would be favored. If they have been model prisoners for at least two years, and if they participate in a two-year re-entry program to become productive members of society.
The FSU law school team met repeatedly with legislators. Science shows the brain of a teenager has not fully developed and behavior changes as people mature, they explained. It's costly to taxpayers to keep rehabilitated people in prison. They also pointed out that the only other country in the world to incarcerate juveniles for life without parole is Somalia.
They appeared to be making their case. The bill sailed through one committee in the Senate with a unanimous vote and squeaked through a House committee.
That's when Rep. William Snyder, R-Stuart, the chairman of the Criminal and Civil Justice Policy Council, blocked it.
Snyder, a former Stuart cop, acknowledged the bill had the support of legislators. He even expressed some sympathy for those who went to prison as children and appeared to be rehabilitated. But he wasn't "willing to take a chance with the security of Floridians," he said.
Annino was dismayed: "It's surprisingly undemocratic that one person can decide if a bill lives or dies. But that's how it is."
Kelli Stargel, a Republican representative from Lakeland, said she was "disappointed but not discouraged."
"We'll modify it, and it'll be stronger for next year," she said. "You wait and see. We'll get it to a place where Rep. Snyder will support it in 2010."
"Maybe," said Snyder.
Meg Laughlin can be reached at [email protected]