TALLAHASSEE — Tougher sentencing laws and restrictions on parole in Florida and other states have resulted in a record number of criminals serving life sentences, according to a new national study.
The report by the Sentencing Project found 140,160 individuals serving life terms in state and federal prisons, including 6,607 juveniles, two of them Floridians whose cases are now under review by the U.S. Supreme Court.
In Florida, the report said, 11.3 percent of prison inmates are serving life; 53 percent of those are African-American and 19 percent Hispanic. Also, 6,424 Florida inmates are serving life without parole.
"They ought to be raising questions about the rising number of violent felons," said Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, a Republican running for attorney general in 2010 on a platform that emphasizes public safety.
"These people are in prison for a reason," he said.
The state with the highest percentage of lifers is California, at 20 percent.
As of Thursday, the Florida prison system had a population of 100,816. The system is close enough to capacity that legislators have given the Department of Corrections the option, for the first time, of exporting criminals to other states with empty prison beds.
Nearly two decades ago, Florida enacted mandatory minimum sentencing laws, such as "10-20-Life" and "three strikes," that increased the number of life felons in the nation's third-largest prison system and sharply reduced inmates' ability to win early release or parole.
"There was a hue and cry to put people in prison and keep them there," said state Sen. Arthenia Joyner, a Tampa Democrat who opposes such measures, saying they remove a judge's discretion. "The message to people in public office was, if you're soft on crime, you're going to lose your election. Now, the prisons are full of people, and the numbers are ever increasing."
Joyner recalled her frustration at filing a bill last session that would have changed the definition of petty theft by increasing the amount of stolen money from $300, which it has been for more than two decades, to $600. "But they wouldn't hear it in the House," Joyner said.
Juveniles also are increasingly being sentenced to life, the report noted, after a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision prohibited juveniles from being executed.
In May, the nation's highest court agreed to review the case of Joe Sullivan of Pensacola, sentenced to life without parole at age 13 for the rape of a 72-year-old woman in 1989. Sullivan, who is mentally disabled, admitted burglarizing the woman's house on that day but has denied committing rape.
He is housed at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution in Milton. His lawyers want the Supreme Court to rule on whether Sullivan's sentence violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
According to the Equal Justice Institute, Sullivan is one of only eight people in the world serving a life sentence without parole for a crime that occurred at age 13, the paper reported.
The Sentencing Project promotes reforms in sentencing, including "alternatives to incarceration," while focusing attention on what it calls disturbing trends and inequities in the criminal justice system.
Times/Herald researcher Lynette Norris contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.