The Florida State Supreme Court unanimously ruled on March 19, 2015, that all of Florida’s juveniles convicted of homicide who received automatic sentences of life in prison must be resentenced under a state law passed in 2014.
The long-awaited ruling answers the question of whether the United States Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama, which effectively banned automatic life sentences for juveniles convicted of homicide, applies retroactively in the state of Florida. An estimated 250 Florida prisoners, 17 of them from Lee and Collier Counties, are serving life sentences for murders committed before they turned 18.
Under Florida’s 2014 law, passed to conform with Miller, only juveniles who committed homicides after July 2014 were subject to a revised sentencing structure, which required a judge to consider several factors before determining a prison term. For about 20 years before the law’s passage, Florida mandated a life sentence for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder. After the law passed, Florida trial and appeal courts have grappled with whether juveniles who killed before July 2014 and received automatic life sentences should receive the same consideration. The state’s five appeals courts gave conflicting opinions.
Yesterday, Justice Barbara J. Pariente of the Florida Supreme Court wrote in Rebecca Falcon [pictured above] v. Florida: “The patent unfairness of depriving indistinguishable juvenile offenders of their liberty for the rest of their lives, based solely on when their cases were decided, weighs heavily in favor of applying the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller retroactively.”
In regard to the significance of these rulings beyond the state of Florida, I’ve only just begun to closely examine the decisions, but given a cursory read, I’d say that they clearly reflect opposition to the extreme sentencing of youth, but whether that opposition is “growing” is a matter of interpretation and careful counting of the very clear split among state and federal courts across the U.S., both on the question of retroactivity and on the question of whether lengthy term of year sentences for non-homicides committed by minors are the equivalent of “life” sentences.
I am heartened by the Florida Supreme Court’s analysis of Miller retroactivity in Falcon (see pp. 3-4 of the decision and footnote 1) as well as its decision in Horsley, holding that Florida laws calling for individualized resentencing hearings do apply to juvenile offenders whose offenses were committed prior to the date of the legislation.
I also find the Gridine and Henry decisions to be significant, but again, it’s too early to say whether they represent or reflect a national trend. I am particularly heartened by the Florida court’s interpretation of Graham v. Florida in Gridine, specifically its holding that the decision applies to attempted murder convictions, despite the language in Graham that seems to limit its decision to defendants “who do not kill, intent to kill, or foresee that life will be taken.” Henry is a positive sign that long term of years sentences in classic non-homicide cases will also be considered as virtual “life” sentences.
These new decisions will certainly be taken into account by SCOTUS when it finally rules on Miller retroactivity, but we won’t know until the Court issues its opinion (likely next term) whether a majority of the Justices agree with the Florida majority.