Wednesday, February 21, 2018
News Roundup

Lawmakers vow solution as courts grapple on how to punish young killers

Former state Rep. Mike Weinstein isn't surprised by what has happened in the year since the U.S. Supreme Court said judges can no longer give juveniles automatic life sentences for murder.

Because in Florida and many other states, the answer is not much.

Despite the high court's ruling, Florida still only allows two sentences for those found guilty of first-degree murder: mandatory life without parole or the death penalty, the latter of which is outlawed for minors.

The ruling has led to confusion and differing opinions in courtrooms across the state, and though lawmakers agree they need to do something, no one has come up with a fix.

"It's still the same problem it was before and it's not going away," said Weinstein, now CEO of Volunteers in Medicine. Sooner or later they'll realize that the smart thing is to take care of it with a law."

Judges across the state are left grappling with how to punish young killers. It played out in Pasco County last month, in Hillsborough County last week and on Friday, when a Pinellas judge again sentenced cop killer Nicholas Lindsey to life in prison after weighing arguments for why he deserved a lighter sentence.

Lawmakers say they plan to tackle the issue when they return to Tallahassee next year.

"It's going to be challenging, and we didn't figure it out last spring," said Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, who expects the issue to come before him in the judiciary committee.

"It's a tough one — quandary is the perfect term," he said. "I think the best we can do is do our best and try to do something wise and intelligent."

In the meantime, courts have been left on their own to sort out the implications of the high court's 2012 ruling in Miller vs. Alabama. Not all have come to the same conclusion.

Prosecutors in one part of the state still consider life without parole a viable punishment — as long as the juvenile gets a presentencing hearing that takes into account factors including age, circumstances of the crime and potential for rehabilitation as required by the ruling.

This was the argument Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Thane Covert ultimately agreed with on Friday. Covert said defense attorneys had not proved their contention that Lindsey, who was 16 at the time he shot St. Petersburg police Officer David S. Crawford, was likely to be rehabilitated.

But in another part of the state, the 5th District Court of Appeal has decided that the Miller ruling requires courts to return to previous sentencing guidelines for juvenile murderers — life with the possibility of parole after 25 years. The latter route is the one a Pasco County judge took in September in the case of Harleme Larry, who robbed and killed a man when he was 14.

Other states also are letting it play out in local courts, but at least 10 have changed laws to comply with the ruling.

In Iowa, for example, the governor commuted the sentences of juveniles who had been sent to prison for life but said they would be eligible for parole only after 60 years. North Carolina decided its young killers should be eligible for parole after 25 years.

Florida Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, chairs the justice committee and thinks the idea of parole might be a tough sell. It's "kind of a bad word because of its symbolism of just letting prisoners out," he said.

Florida got rid of parole in the 1980s and Baxley said he knows plenty of lawmakers who would not be eager to revive it. It might be smart to change the title of the parole commission to something like the "review commission," he said.

"Because that's what it does realistically," Baxley said, adding that very few people who go before the existing commission get released.

Weinstein said he could see a scenario where lawmakers sign off on a parole system for juveniles, if only to save the state money.

"The idea of parole or some other sort of mechanism is getting more and more likely as you see more and more states spending less money on their prison systems," said Weinstein, a Republican from Jacksonville. "As time passes the economics will drive even the most conservative legislators to re-evaluate the numbers and lengths of sentences. The finances drive policy more than the philosophy."

Dudley, a defense attorney, said lawmakers want to strike a balance.

"I think it's a reasonable and laudable goal to consider that someone who commits such a heinous crime in their youth might warrant some sort of review later," he said. "But some people aren't suited for it. There will be lawmakers who have no interest in resurrecting parole for these murderers who are juveniles."

Baxley said there's a possibility lawmakers could decide just to set a new sentence altogether for juvenile murderers or continue down one of the paths already set by recent decisions. They could also let the situation continue to evolve until the state's own supreme court steps in.

"I don't know where we'll end up on that scale," Baxley said. "It's unfinished business we need to address. I know we're not ready to excuse people for heinous crimes just because of age."

Times staff writer Peter Jamison and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Kameel Stanley can be reached at [email protected] or (727)893-8643.

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