Daniela Tenjido
Daniela TenjidoEditor-In-Chief

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court held, in Miller v. Alabama, that for juveniles, mandatory life without parole sentences violate the Eighth Amendment. 567 U.S. 460, 479 (2012). Miller set a new standard for sentencing juvenile offenders which mandated that judges consider that the “transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequences both lessened a child’s ‘moral culpability’ and enhanced the prospect that, as the years go by and neurological development occurs, his ‘deficiencies will be reformed.’” Id. at 472.

Following the Miller decision, the state of Florida, in Atwell v. State, decided a case where a sixteen-year-old was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to a mandatory term of life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after twenty-five years. 197 So. 3d 1040, 1041 (Fla. 2016). There, the Court decided that the existing parole system in Florida, to which Atwell would be subject to after twenty-five years, did not take into account Atwell’s juvenile status at the time of the murder as required by the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Miller and Atwell’s sentence was therefore, unconstitutional. Id. However, it was not long before Florida changed its own ruling in Atwell, taking a huge step backwards in juvenile sentencing reform.

It is important to understand that the Miller decision did not guarantee the release of offenders serving life without parole. Rather, it required that a meaningful opportunity for review be granted after a reasonable period of incarceration. In 2012, the Sentencing Project released findings from surveyed prisoners who were sentenced as juveniles. These findings highlight why reform is needed. The data showed that of all juvenile defendants, 79% experienced violence at home on a regular basis, 32% grew up in public housing, 40% needed special education classes, fewer than half were attending school when they committed their crime, 47% were physically abused, 80% of girls reported histories of physical abuse, and 77% of girls reported histories of sexual abuse.

In 2018, the Florida Supreme Court in State v. Michel, set aside its only two-year-old decision in Atwell when it followed a new U.S. Supreme Court decision in Virginia v. LeBlanc, which found that a Virginia geriatric release program satisfied the Eighth Amendment. 137 S. Ct. 1726, 1729 (2017). The Florida Supreme Court, in its plurality opinion in Michel, used the very narrow holding in LeBlanc to find that Miller and its imposition of meaningful sentencing reviews for juvenile prisoners, does not apply to prisoners who are already sentenced to life with the possibility of parole in the State of Florida. This decision meant that a juvenile defendant sentence in Florida to life with the possibility of parole, is not entitled to a different sentencing review that follows the Miller standards because they are already eligible for the possibility of parole.

There are many reasons that a parole hearing for a juvenile is not sufficient to satisfy Miller or the Eighth Amendment. First, a proper re-sentencing or review for a juvenile defendant would be presided by a judge, would include the defendant and his or her attorney, and would allow juvenile defendants to present pertinent information to prove his or her entitlement to release based on maturity and rehabilitation. Contrastingly, the parole review process that the Florida Supreme Court claims is sufficient in its Michel decision, entitles the juvenile defendant to a review of his or her sentence, after twenty-five years, at a hearing presided over by members of the parole commission. In a parole hearing, the juvenile defendant is not present, he or she is not entitled to have an attorney present, and the parole board is not required to consider Miller factors such as maturity and rehabilitation.

By putting its previous holding in Atwell aside in the new Michel opinion, the Florida Supreme Court also ignores the principle of stare decisis. Stare decisis stands for the proposition that a court should follow its own precedent unless there has been a significant change in circumstances after the adoption of the legal rule or an error occurred in legal analysis. Putting Atwell aside based on a new U.S. Supreme Court ruling would serve stare decisis if not for the fact that in LeBlanc, Virginia’s geriatric release program under review was completely different from Florida’s parole system. Virginia’s program considered among other factors, an individual’s history, their conduct while incarcerated, and their interpersonal relationships with the prison staff and other prisoners. These factors have a closer chance of giving insight into the defendant’s maturity and rehabilitation. Contrastingly, the Florida parole system’s primary concern is the perceived dangerousness of the defendant with no meaningful review of the juvenile defendant’s maturity and rehabilitation.

Florida’s backward step in juvenile sentencing reform contradicts the U.S. Supreme Court’s Miller decision as well as the scientific data available that compels reform. Adolescence is marked by the failure to properly assess risks and consequences, both factors that hinder the decision-making process. Giving juvenile offenders a chance to become rehabilitated is important because studies show that young individuals have a substantial capacity for rehabilitation. Allowing those offenders to be considered for parole ensures that juveniles whose crimes reflected only transient immaturity, and who have since then matured, will not be deprived of the opportunity to participate in society as the rehabilitated and changed adults they are now. It simply sends the message that as a society, we care about children and are not willing to lock them away and forget about them. Children are categorically different from adults. It is why they are restricted from voting, driving, drinking alcohol, etc. Our legal system too should consider that a child offender deserves a chance to meaningfully prove that they are not the same person they were when they committed their crimes. Florida’s parole review falls short in accomplishing this goal.