Four plaintiffs allege in a proposed class action that Florida’s parole rules, policies and practices are unconstitutional in that they effectively condemn those serving life sentences with the possibility of parole in the state to die in prison for crimes they committed while under the age of 18.
The plaintiffs, who filed the 62-page case alongside the Juvenile Law Center, claim that individuals in Florida serving life with the possibility of parole, specifically those sentenced while they were juveniles, face “bleak prospects for release” under a parole system that has “routinely flouted the mandates” of several Supreme Court decisions that bar death in prison for juveniles who were not found to be “permanently incorrigible and incapable of rehabilitation.”
“The disparities created by Florida’s dual-track system for juvenile lifers cannot stand,” the lawsuit reads.
Referenced off the bat in the complaint is a series of Supreme Court decisions that found that life in prison, considered in light of the recognition of the “diminished culpability and greater capacity for rehabilitation” in juveniles, constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment” as defined in the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The exception in this regard, the suit relays, is the “rare instance” where a particular child is found to “exhibit such irretrievable depravity that rehabilitation is impossible.” Per the case, the Supreme Court ruled that the new substantive constitutional rule applies retroactively.
While the above-referenced decisions involved cases in which the juveniles were sentenced to life without parole, courts have held that the principles should apply equally in cases where a youth was sentenced to life with parole but has no realistic opportunity for release or meaningful opportunity to demonstrate maturity and rehabilitation due to the state’s parole policies, practices and procedures, the complaint says.
Such is the case in Florida, according to the plaintiffs. While the state’s response to the Supreme Court’s decisions in Miller and Graham was to adopt new sentencing procedures for juveniles serving life without parole—known as the 2014 Juvenile Sentencing Statute—youths serving sentences of life with the possibility of parole, such as the plaintiffs, have not been afforded the “substantive and procedural benefits” of the new law, according to the complaint.
Under the 2014 Juvenile Sentencing Statute, which applied retroactively, juvenile offenders serving the harsher sentence of life without parole are granted certain considerations in line with the Constitution, including the trial court’s consideration of the offender’s youth as well as the crime committed before imposing a life sentence; a review of the sentence after 15 to 25 years at which point the judge is required to consider the defendant’s maturation and rehabilitation to determine whether the sentence should be modified; and the right to be represented by counsel, attend the sentencing and resentencing, hire experts, present evidence, cross-examine witnesses and appeal the court’s decision, the lawsuit says.
Juvenile offenders sentenced to life with the possibility of parole, however, are not granted the same opportunities to demonstrate maturity and rehabilitation within the confines of Florida’s parole system, the lawsuit argues.
“Florida’s parole system, for the reasons documented in this Complaint, is not operating in a constitutional manner as to the Named Plaintiffs and Class Members,” the complaint alleges. “It does not treat juvenile offenders differently from adult offenders. It does not offer juvenile offenders the ‘meaningful opportunity’ to demonstrate rehabilitation and maturity as required by the U. S. Supreme Court nor a realistic opportunity for release and a chance to live some of their lives outside prison walls.”
The state’s parole process, which the case says is “virtually identical” for juveniles and adults, is designed to “give primary weight” to the nature of the offender’s present crime and past criminal record while allowing no consideration of a juvenile offender’s maturity and rehabilitation, the suit says. Moreover, the case relays that the parole statute specifically states that any release granted to a prisoner is treated as an “act of grace” and “shall not be considered a right,” which the lawsuit argues directly contradicts the Supreme Court decisions finding that juvenile “lifers” have a constitutional right to be released from prison upon demonstration of their maturity and rehabilitation.
More from the complaint:
“Nowhere in the parole statute is the Commission required to consider any of the factors that a court is required to consider under U.S. Supreme Court case law and Florida’s 2014 Juvenile Sentencing Statute, such as the defendant’s age, maturity, mental and emotional health at the time of the offense, the defendant’s home and community life, the effect of immaturity and impetuosity on the defendant’s participation in the offense, or the maturity and rehabilitation of the defendant since the offense. To the contrary, since the parole process is driven by current offense and past criminal record, the parole statute specifically states that ‘[n]o person shall be placed on parole merely as a reward for good conduct or efficient performance of duties assigned in prison.’”
In stark contrast to the opportunities afforded to those serving life without parole under Florida’s 2014 Juvenile Sentencing Statute, juvenile offenders serving life with the possibility parole are not allowed to attend the meetings at which the parole commission decides if and when they may be released or permitted to speak to the parole commissioners, be represented by counsel, or hire experts to make mental health assessments and testify in their favor, the lawsuit alleges.
“There is no justification for the stark difference in treatment between juvenile offenders who received [life without parole] sentences and those who received [life with parole] sentences,” the complaint scathes. “There is no substantive reason to treat the two groups differently, but the juvenile lifers serving [life with parole] are not being afforded the right to meaningful opportunity for release now required by the Constitution.”
The lawsuit, which was filed against three officers of the Florida Commission on Offender Review, looks to represent anyone who was convicted of a crime committed when they were under 18 years of age, was sentenced to life in prison or a term of years exceeding their life expectancy, currently remains in the custody of the Florida Department of Corrections and is or will become eligible for release to parole supervision through the parole process.
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