By failing to revise state law, the Florida Legislature has put trial courts in a bind over the sentencing of juveniles. New restrictions on punishments for minors convicted of serious crimes have been established by recent U.S. Supreme Court opinions. But since the Legislature failed to adjust state law, the courts are left, as Pinellas-Pasco Chief Circuit Judge Thomas McGrady says, to shoot "in the dark." That dereliction of duty is bad for the courts and creates unnecessary pain for both convicted minors and the families of their victims.
State courts are on their own to decide what to do with cases like that of Nicholas Lindsey, who was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for shooting and killing St. Petersburg police Officer David Crawford in 2011. Lindsey was 16 years old when Crawford stopped to question him about a burglary and the young man opened fire because he didn't want to go to jail. But Lindsey's mandatory sentence for first-degree murder is no longer valid. In Miller vs. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that a life sentence for a juvenile offender can only be imposed if their youth and other circumstances are taken into account.
For heinous homicides, life imprisonment is still a valid option, but in light of a young person's lack of maturity and capacity for change, the Supreme Court ended mandatory life sentences. Those considerations are similar to the ones that led the court in a 2010 case from Jacksonville to find that a juvenile offender could not be given life without the possibility of parole for non-homicides. And in 2005, the court barred the death penalty for minors convicted of murder.
These fair-minded changes recognize that young people are different from adults. Their developing brain means teens are typically less likely to recognize the consequences of their actions or control their impulses. Unlike adults, children may be subject to a dysfunctional or violent home environment they cannot escape.
Florida courts are bound by the U.S. Supreme Court rulings. Measures in the state House and Senate that would have provided new guidance in cases like Lindsey's and the state's other 221 Miller inmates failed to be considered by the full chambers. The bills, SB 1350 and HB 7137, directed judges to evaluate a series of factors relative to youth and level of participation in the crime when sentencing a minor convicted of murder. A judge could then impose a life sentence or alternatively a sentence of no less than 50 years — an unduly harsh minimum sentence. The measures also put a 50-year upper limit on sentences for non-homicide juvenile offenders.
By failing to do its job, the Legislature has opened the door to trial judges imposing widely disparate sentences for similar crimes and made the criminal justice system less uniform and more unfair. Minors such as Lindsey who are convicted of murder should be punished, but neither the criminals nor their victims should be left with such uncertainty about what comes next.