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(Tallahassee) –  The Florida legislature has approved a bill allowing for judicial review of very long sentences for youth offenders, recognizing the injustice of such sentences for children, Human Rights Watch said today. House Bill 7035 on Juvenile Sentencing passed on May 2, 2014, by a vote of 115 to 0. The measure now goes to Governor Rick Scott for his signature.

“By passing this bill, Florida’s legislature has given most, though sadly not all, of Florida’s youth serving life sentences the chance to show they have turned their lives around,” said Natalie Kato, southern US state advocate at Human Rights Watch, who is based in Tallahassee. “It’s both unjust and senseless to sentence a child to die in prison without ever considering the personal changes and growth they are likely to undergo.”

The proposed law creates a review structure for children under age 18 sentenced to long or life sentences for serious crimes. Florida has abolished parole, so a life sentence had offered no opportunity for release other than the rarely used executive powers of pardon or commutation.

The bill does not abolish all life sentences without the possibility of release for youth offenders. It permits such sentences for child offenders convicted of first-degree murder who have committed a prior serious crime. The Florida legislature should eliminate all life sentences for youth offenders in the next legislative session, Human Rights Watch said.

The bill establishes a series of factors that the judge must consider before deciding the appropriate sentence for any youth convicted of a homicide offense. These include the defendant’s age; maturity; intellectual capacity; mental and emotional health at the time of the offense; background, including the family, home, and community environment; and the possibility of rehabilitation.

These factors stem from a series of US Supreme Court cases, including Miller v. Alabama, which recognized that children are different from adults and have a distinct status under international human rights and US constitutional law.

After the court has considered these factors, a youth convicted of first-degree murder must be sentenced to at least 40 years. Second-degree murder carries no mandatory minimum sentence. For both types of murder, the bill requires that a youth receive a review of their sentence after 25 years, no matter what their original sentence is. In all cases, the sentencing court will have the ability to reduce the sentence after considering the young offender’s maturity, rehabilitation, remorse, and other factors.

For other crimes, judges will not have a minimum sentence requirement. Youth offenders serving sentences for felony murder will have an opportunity for sentence review after 15 years.

Under the bill the legislature passed, the youth offender will have only one opportunity for review. This is contrary to international human rights law, which calls for young offenders to have periodic meaningful opportunities for review, and is thus a major failing of the bill, Human Rights Watch said.

“By removing the multiple opportunities for review contained in the original House version of this bill, today’s legislation undermines the state’s ability to effectively identify all youth who in fact are capable of reform,” Kato said. 

The protections of this bill will only be available to youth offenders sentenced after the bill becomes law. The issue of whether the US Supreme Court’s decision in Miller is retroactive is currently under consideration by the Florida Supreme Court.

International legal standards hold that a sentence of life without parole is not warranted under any circumstances for youth offenders because they lack the experience, education, and mental development of adults and must be given a reasonable opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.

“The United States has the shameful distinction of being the only country in the world that sentences its youth to life sentences without a chance at parole,” Kato said. “By signing this bill into law, Governor Scott would be helping Florida and the country to come closer to leaving this unjust and disgraceful practice behind.”

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