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Some inmates given long sentences as teens would be eligible for release in 15 years under proposed bill

TALLAHASSEE — Kendrick Morris was 16 when he brutally raped and beat a teenager outside the Bloomingdale Regional Public Library.

Last year, he was sentenced to 65 years in prison.

Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, invoked his case Wednesday before grudgingly voting for SB 212, which would give perpetrators of non-homicidal crimes the opportunity for a re-sentence or parole after 15 years.

Inmates like Morris should never go free, she argued.

"Just because we practice forgiveness doesn't mean you don't have to suffer the consequences of your own choices," she said, adding that the Bloomingdale rape victim is permanently paralyzed. "This sweet baby that has been shattered ... how can I face this sweet baby if her perpetrator walks free?"

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a Florida case that juveniles who didn't commit murder can't be sentenced to life in prison. Last year, a state court said in some cases, really long sentences are the "functional equivalent of a life sentence."

The case in question was Graham v. Florida, in which 16-year-old Terrance Jamar Graham of Jacksonville was an accomplice in an armed robbery and then violated his plea agreement in another armed robbery six months later.

The Florida court left it to the Legislature to determine the conditions and length of time under which inmates given very long sentences as teenagers would be eligible for the possibility of release.

Under SB 212, inmates would only be eligible for release if they had good behavior, expressed remorse and met other requirements. The feelings of the victim or next-of-kin may also be considered, Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Gainesville, said.

Despite unanimously passing the bill, senators in the Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee voiced concerns the measure goes too far in some cases and not far enough in others.

Minority Leader Nan Rich, D-Weston, argued it's too harsh to make juvenile offenders wait 25 years, as stated in the original bill, before an opportunity for release. She pointed to cases in which people are sentenced far too long for crimes in which they are merely the "door watcher" or the "money grabber" and the committee complied with her suggestion to amend the bill to allow hearings after 15 years.

Storms, on the other hand, threatened not to pass the bill if it didn't incorporate a tiered system that would keep sexual criminals in prison.

About 110 inmates would be affected if the bill passes, said state attorney Earl Moreland.

Oelrich, who sponsored the bill, said the change "is only a start" in figuring out how to deal with inmates whose sentences were suddenly illegal after the Florida Supreme Court decision.

As a former police officer, Oelrich said, he believes in the power of people to change and wants to see opportunity for redemption.

"I've been involved in prison ministry for many years. There are people in there who have a revelation or spiritual change in their lives where they're not the same person," he said. "The idea that a person at the age of 16 could commit a crime and be irredeemable for the rest of their lives seems somewhat draconian to me."

The bill has one more stop in the Senate and its House companion is ready for the floor.

Correction: Ronda Storms is a Republican state senator. An earlier version of this story was incorrect.

Some inmates given long sentences as teens would be eligible for release in 15 years under proposed bill 02/22/12 [Last modified: Thursday, February 23, 2012 8:56am]
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