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Florida Supreme Court Strikes Down Mandatory Life Sentences for Teenage Offenders

Most juvenile crimes in Florida are handled outside of the normal court system. This affords teenagers charged with an offense the opportunity for rehabilitation. But in severe cases such as murder, even a teenager can be tried, convicted, and sentenced as an adult. In recent years, this has led the U.S. and Florida supreme courts to consider how far the state can go in punishing a person who was convicted of committing a serious crime while still a minor.

Juveniles Must Receive “Individualized” Sentencing Consideration

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court categorically held that states could not impose the death penalty on a “juvenile offender who was older than 15 but younger than 18 when he committed a capital crime.” Seven years later, in 2012, the Court went on to decide that “mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on ‘cruel and unusual punishments.’” While state courts could still impose life prison terms on juvenile offenders, sentencing had to be determined on an individual basis, taking into account a minor’s “lessened culpability” and “greater capacity for change.”

This led to the Florida Supreme Court’s recent decision in Atwell v. Florida. The defendant in this case was 16 years old when he was charged with armed robbery and first-degree murder. In 1992, he was tried as an adult and convicted. Under Florida law at the time, a person convicted of first-degree murder could only be sentenced to death or “life imprisonment” with eligibility for parole after 25 years served. In 1994, the Florida legislature amended the law to eliminate the possibility of parole.

The defendant in this case was sentenced to life imprisonment. In 2013, the defendant asked a Florida court to reconsider his life sentence in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 decision. The court rejected the defendant’s arguments, noting he was eligible for parole after 25 years.

Indeed, the defendant received a parole hearing in 2015. Based on the criteria specified in Florida law, the parole board agreed the defendant should eventually be released from prison—in December 2130. Given that the defendant would be 140 years old at that time, he appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, arguing he was serving what amounted to an unconstitutional mandatory life sentence.

The Florida Supreme Court agreed. By a 4-3 vote, the court held that Florida’s parole system “does not provide for individualized consideration of [the defendant’s] juvenile status at the time of the murder,” as required by the U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Eighth Amendment. In other words, Florida can no longer automatically sentence juvenile offenders to life in prison without taking into account their individual circumstances.

Get Help From a Juvenile Crimes Defense Attorney

Even if your teenager is not facing a capital charge, any criminal record can affect their future. That is why you should always work with an experienced Miami criminal defense lawyer who understands the juvenile justice system. Contact the Law Office of Julia Kefalinos today if you require immediate assistance.

The Law Office of Julia Kefalinos, Attorney, P.A.
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Telephone: 305.676.9545
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The Law Office of Julia Kefalinos, Attorney, P.A. is located in Miami, FL and serves clients in and around Miami, Key Biscayne, North Miami Beach, Opa Locka, Hallandale, Hollywood and Broward County.

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