The Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday that juvenile offenders serving sentences so lengthy they amount to life in prison must have their cases reconsidered by a judge, even if they are eligible for parole.
The 4-3 ruling will dramatically expand the number of juvenile offenders who qualify for resentencing, granting a second chance for release to potentially hundreds of people convicted of murder and other serious crimes in their youth. It relies on a series of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions requiring new sentencing for youths automatically banished to prison for life by laws that did not factor in the defendant's age and immaturity.
"All children who received life with parole sentences now have an opportunity to show they've been rehabilitated," said Florida State University law professor Paolo Annino, who estimated the court's decision could reopen the cases of approximately 300 offenders sentenced decades ago. "This decision gives these juvenile offenders hope," he said.
The case, Atwell vs. Florida, concerned Angelo Atwell, who was 16 years old in August of 1990 when he was charged with the armed robbery and murder of a Broward County high school economics teacher. At the time, Florida had two possible sentences for someone convicted of murder: death, or life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years.
When Atwell, now 41, was sentenced in 1992, the death penalty was still permissible for juveniles — it has since been declared unconstitutional — but a jury recommended a life sentence for the teenager by a 7-5 vote.
At Atwell's parole hearing in 2015, the Commission on Offender Review said the earliest he could be considered for release was Dec. 27, 2130, more than 140 years after the date of his offense.
"While technically Atwell is parole-eligible, it is a virtual certainty that Atwell will spend the rest of his life in prison," wrote Justice Barbara J. Pariente.
Pariente's majority opinion draws on the U. S. Supreme Court's 2012 decision in Miller vs. Alabama, which ruled that automatic life sentences for juveniles violated the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Juvenile offenders could still be sentenced to life without parole, but only after their cases received individualized consideration of their youth and other factors.
"We conclude that Florida's existing parole system, as set forth by statute, does not provide for individualized consideration of Atwell's juvenile status," Pariente wrote. Atwell's sentence "is virtually indistinguishable from a sentence of life without parole, and is therefore unconstitutional."
Three of the court's justices disagreed. Writing in a dissenting opinion, they said they favored the state's argument that because Atwell was eligible for parole, his sentence did not violate the Constitution.
The court's decision sends Atwell's case back to the trial level, where he will be resentenced. Under a state law passed in response to the Miller decision, his new sentence could range from 40 years to life imprisonment, with a guaranteed review by a judge after 25 years.
Florida abolished parole for most offenses in 1983 and for murder in 1994. But as of July 2015, when the most recent data became available, there were still 4,561 parole-eligible inmates in the state's prisons. If the past is any indicator, most of them have no realistic hope of ever being released. During the 2015-16 fiscal year, the commission granted parole to 28 inmates, about half of a percent of those eligible.
"There's a reason they changed their name from the Florida Parole Commission to the Commission on Offender Review," said Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger. "They don't parole anybody."
The scoring system that determines an inmate's possible parole date gives great weight to unchanging factors like the severity of the crime and the offenders' previous criminal record. Until recently, it singled out juvenile offenders by adding an extra point to their score for having committed a crime as a youth. As a result, juveniles were consigned to prison for longer than adults.
In Florida, inmates are not allowed to attend parole hearings and have no right to have a lawyer present.
"The parole commission, all these years, has never provided a meaningful opportunity for release," Annino said. "Advocates have been saying this for many years, parents have been saying it, inmates have been saying it, and now the Florida Supreme Court has said it."
Contact Anna M. Phillips at email@example.com or (813) 226-3354. Follow @annamphillips.