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Editorial: Legislature should do its duty on juvenile justice

The Florida Supreme Court has extra work these days because the Florida Legislature is refusing to do its job. The U.S. Supreme Court has put new limits on juvenile sentencing in recognition that children are not as culpable as adults, but Florida lawmakers have failed to make the needed adjustments in state law. This leaves it to Florida courts to reconcile the court rulings, wasting judicial resources and harming both victims and defendants. During the next legislative session, conforming Florida law to current legal precedent needs to be a top priority.

Last month, the state high court decided another issue that could have been avoided. The court ruled, 6-0, with Justice Barbara Pariente recused, that juveniles may bond out of jail before trial even if an adult similarly charged would not have that right.

Wayne Treacy was a 15-year-old freshman at Deerfield Beach High School when he attacked middle school student Josie Lou Ratley in 2010 with steel-toed boots, brutally kicking her and slamming her head into concrete. They had been verbally fighting through text messages before the dispute became violent. Treacy, who had no prior convictions, was charged as an adult with attempted first-degree murder with a deadly weapon.

An issue arose when Treacy was denied bond even though the state Constitution makes pretrial release a right for offenses that don't carry the death penalty or a life sentence. Under state law, Treacy could have been facing life imprisonment for his offense, but in 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case from Jacksonville that minors could not receive a sentence of life in prison without parole for a crime short of homicide. Florida abolished parole in 1983.

The 2010 case is one of a group in which the high court recognized that juveniles lack maturity and have greater capacity to change than adults and should receive special consideration. This thinking led the high court in 2005 to abolish the death penalty for minors, and last year it ruled that a young person convicted of murder can only be sentenced to life without parole if his youth and circumstances are taken into account.

In Treacy's case, the Florida Supreme Court concluded he had a right to pretrial release since he was ineligible for a life sentence. Had this been clarified in state law, the state wouldn't have spent years fighting Treacy's bond. Last year, Treacy was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison followed by 10 years' probation. But the court decided to rule anyway on the bond question because the issue was likely to recur in cases involving other juvenile defendants charged as adults.

By refusing to address the discrepancies between state law and U.S. Supreme Court precedent, the Legislature is pushing its work onto the courts and adding unnecessary expense to the system. Florida lawmakers should not ignore their responsibility another year.

Editorial: Legislature should do its duty on juvenile justice 11/15/13 [Last modified: Friday, November 15, 2013 6:25pm]
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