Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

'Getting tough' with juvenile offenders forgets about hope

A decade ago we were horrified by violent crime committed by juvenile offenders — children, at least in the legal sense — not to mention weary of a "justice" system that seemed to release kids without so much as a stern talking-to.

So in the sort of overreaction we are prone to, we Got Tough around here, part of getting tough involving how we dole out punishment. Today Florida leads the nation in the number of kids doing life in prison for crimes in which no one died.

That's not life as in: Spend years in prison, come back and we'll take a look at your case to see if you deserve another chance.

That's life as in: You will die behind bars, same as in first-degree murder cases that don't get the death penalty. Which, if you think about it, is a different kind of death sentence.

The U.S. Supreme Court is considering two Florida cases — the rape of an elderly woman and a home invasion by a kid already on probation for burglary — and whether life sentences for juveniles in "nonhomicide" crimes is cruel and unusual punishment.

It's at least unfair.

Four years ago the court banned the death penalty for anyone younger than 18 when the murder was committed, acknowledging immaturity and vulnerability to influence.

The death penalty opinion said this: When a juvenile offender commits a heinous crime, the State can exact forfeiture of some of the most basic liberties, but the State cannot extinguish his life and his potential to attain a mature understanding of his own humanity.

Isn't dying in prison sort of like that?

It's important to note no one is advocating a get-out-of-jail free card for teenage criminals, just a chance.

During arguments before the Supreme Court earlier this month, some justices suggested that rather than a ban on life-means-life sentences in these cases, judges should factor in age when deciding punishment.

Well, any defense lawyer worth his wing tips already argues the age factor when a young client's life hangs in the balance. And while it might work for some, it sure didn't for a teen named William Thornton, who was sentenced to 30 years for a fatal car accident in Citrus County and who is out now only because people bothered to be outraged about it.

Which is to say our system can be lopsided. Some, like Jordan Valdez, the Davis Islands teenager sentenced this week for leaving the scene of an accident involving death after she hit a homeless woman, are lucky enough to afford good attorneys who pay attention and argue hard. Other children go into our system and disappear.

Children being the key word. They are not fully formed, still growing, still becoming. No one is arguing against harsh sentences for hard-core cases. But the system should give juvenile offenders the chance to be something beyond what put them in prison.

Amid the high court's pondering on the fairness of life sentences for children came an interesting question from Justice Anthony Kennedy:

"Why does a juvenile have a constitutional right to hope, but an adult does not?"

That's another question for another day, but maybe part of the answer is this:

Because hope is something children tend to have, hope and the potential to change.

'Getting tough' with juvenile offenders forgets about hope 11/26/09 [Last modified: Thursday, November 26, 2009 8:42pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Watch the trailer for 'Mini Lights,' based on St. Petersburg's frightening urban legend

    Blogs

    Perhaps you've heard of the "mini lights." The tales can vary a bit, but generally, they're said to be nasty little creatures controlled by a witch that once lived near Booker Creek. They come out after dark to "get you."

    A scene from the proof of concept trailer for a mini lights movie.
  2. Democratic ad: Adam Putnam is 'silent' on GOP health bill

    Blogs

    Democrats are trying to attach Adam Putnam to the GOP’s unpopular plans to replace Obamacare.

  3. Competition and uncertainty keep New Port Richey's Steve Miklos hooked on power boat racing

    Outdoors

    HOLIDAY — If Steve Miklos could have it his way, every power boat race would take place in rough water. He finds the turbulent conditions calming, an attitude he's developed during a professional power boat racing career that spans hundreds of races dating back to 1991.

    Steve Miklos, the throttle man and owner of the No. 51 Sun Print Racing boat, poses at his shop in Holiday. [CHRIS URSO   |   Times]
  4. Did a Cubs player give Trump the middle finger during a White House visit?

    Ml

    President Donald Trump welcomed former Rays manager Joe Maddon and the World Series champion Chicago Cubs into the Oval Office. But it was a photo that surfaced later that got much of the attention on …

    President Donald Trump welcomed former Rays manager Joe Maddon and the World Series champion Chicago Cubs into the Oval Office. But it was a photo that surfaced later that got much of the attention on social media.
The photo, taken by Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times, purportedly shows outfielder Albert Almora Jr. flipping a bird while standing just feet from Trump as the other players were gathered around his desk. [Gordon Wittenmyer via Twitter]
  5. Florida's death row population lower today than it was in 2005

    Blogs

    The last person executed in Florida was Oscar Ray Bolin on Jan. 7, 2016, making him the 92nd person to be executed since Florida resumed capital punishment in 1979. The last condemned inmate to join death row , convicted double-murderer Craig Wall of Pinellas County, arrived on June 6, 2016.

    The execution chamber at Florida State Prison