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Florida Supreme Court to decide on juvenile sentencing

Right or wrong, juvenile charges in Florida can carry serious long-term consequences and penalties. When a minor is charged with a crime, there is a hearing held within 24 hours of the arrest to determine whether he or she will be tried as a juvenile or adult. In reaching its decision, the court considers the age of the defendant and the severity of the alleged crime. The juvenile justice system differs from the criminal justice system in that it is designed to rehabilitate young offenders and give them a fresh start.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sentencing juveniles to life in prison for non-homicide cases is unconstitutional because such sentencing is cruel and unusual punishment. The high court made it clear that states must at least evaluate young inmates' maturity and rehabilitation status, as well as give them a meaningful opportunity to be released.

With 220 cases of juveniles sentenced to life in prison for non-homicide offenses, Florida has more than 70 percent of the nation's total.

On May 29, the Florida First District Court of Appeal asked the Florida Supreme Court to decide on the constitutionality of a 70-year prison sentence for attempted first-degree murder when the offender was only 14 years old at the time of the crime. The appellate court previously affirmed the sentence with a 2-1 vote, but the dissenting judge expressed concern that there is uncertainty as to what constitutes life in prison.

For instance, is a 60-year sentence for a juvenile convicted of a non-homicide crime lawful while a 70-year sentence is not? Or is a 70-year sentence lawful while an 80-year sentence is not? One matter, for now, is clear: Florida residents who are concerned with how juveniles are sentenced in our state will be eagerly awaiting the high court's decision.

Source: Tampa Bay Online, "Florida Supreme Court to review juvenile sentences," May 29, 2012

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