Thursday, May 24, 2018
Public safety

Time for Legislature to do right by young offenders

Florida law allows only one sentence for Harleme Larry, who two weeks ago was convicted of a murder he committed in Dade City when he was 14 years old: life in prison with no chance of parole.

If you think this isn't right, that we need to clear the legal attic of these relics of the tough-on-crime 1990s, you have plenty of company.

That includes researchers at the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based group that favors ending mandatory life sentences for juveniles convicted as adults of first-degree murder. Last year, in a report called The Lives of Juvenile Lifers, it found that overwhelming numbers of these young offenders came from broken and violent homes, and struggled in school, and were exposed to criminal activity at a very young age.

In other words, the raw deal they got from the courts was just one in a long series of raw deals. And it's hard to imagine anyone getting a worse deal than Larry, whose mother, a cocaine addict and prostitute, was murdered by his stepfather when Larry was 3.

"You could almost predict this, that something bad would happen," said Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger.

Dillinger would think that, you might say. He's a defense attorney. And the Sentencing Project folks sound like a collection of out-of-touch liberals.

Okay, but you can't say the same about the former official in the George W. Bush administration who, as a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1990s, came up with theories that helped justify throw-away-the-key sentences for kids, predicting the arrival of criminal "super-predators … the youngest, biggest and baddest generation any society has ever known." He later apologized, as well he should have. Rates of violent crime committed by juveniles have dropped dramatically since the early 1990s.

And you can't say our state Senate is full of liberals. Earlier this year, it voted for an amendment that would have allowed juvenile lifers a chance at release after a relatively reasonable 25 years in prison.

And you certainly can't say this country has a left-leaning Supreme Court. Last year, in Miller vs. Alabama, it ruled that mandatory life sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional.

That's right. The U.S. Constitution, the court said, forbids the very sentence that Florida law demands for first-degree murder.

Which brings us to the people who still seem to favor these inhumane sentences: prosecutors and one particular former prosecutor, Sen. Ron Bradley, R-Orange Park, who introduced a bill last session that would have brought state law into compliance with the court's decision — barely.

Yes, the bill said, a judge could consider factors such age and family life when sentencing juveniles convicted as adults of first-degree murder. And then the judge could trim the sentence all the way down to 50 years in prison.

Not quite life, but very close. According to the Senate staff's analysis of this bill, the remaining life expectancy for a 17-year-old black male like Larry is 54.9 years.

When a majority in the Senate voted for the amendment to Bradley's bill that allowed a sentence as short as 25 years and for periodic hearings after that term had expired, Bradley was willing to let his bill die.

This means that when Larry is sentenced in August … well, nobody knows exactly what it means, except total confusion, Dillinger said.

Bradley said he acted out of concern for the families of victims — that he doesn't want them to worry about the release of these murderers or be forced to relive the crimes during release hearings.

That is a valid sentiment, highly commendable as a matter of fact. And nobody should forget that for the sake of $4 — the amount Larry netted in his 2010 robbery, which ended with the shooting of 31-year-old Agustin Hernandez — Larry left a widow and two children.

But concern for families needs to be balanced with concern for young offenders like Larry, whose public defender, Tom Hanlon, described him as remarkably likable, considering his upbringing.

"We spent a lot of time with him," said Hanlon. "He was always upbeat and pleasant. … He treated us with respect and dignity."

Does that excuse his crime? Does it mean that I want to see him on the street any time soon?

No, just that there are better ways to respond to the taking of one life than automatically tossing out another one.

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