Fla. has 78 of nation's 110 teens on life without parole
7 out of every 10 juvenile lifers in the country are in Fla.
TAMPA, Fla. — Jose Guadalupe Walle joined a select group of state prisoners this week.
Convicted of the armed kidnapping and raping of two Hillsborough County women when he was 13, Walle became one of 78 Florida prisoners serving a life sentence without parole for a nonlethal crime committed while they were juveniles.
Walle's case also thrust the spotlight back on Florida, which leads the nation by a wide margin in its willingness to sentence juveniles to life without parole for non-homicide crimes.
Nationally, just 110 juveniles are serving those sentences - meaning seven out of every 10 juvenile lifers in the country are in a Florida cell.
The state now also has seven prisoners put away for life for nonlethal crimes committed when they were either 13 years old or 14 years old.
For many, Walle's case represents justice. The sentencing judge described him as a "predator" and said he should never be allowed on the streets again, according to press reports. The victims testified that Walle, although he was joined by two older men, was fully engaged in the crimes and did not deserve mercy.
For others, Walle's case again raises the question of whether Florida should impose the same harsh standards for juveniles who scientific evidence shows are developmentally different from adults.
In Walle's case, his parents described a troubled youth who dropped out of school, ran away from home, and fell under the influence of drugs and gang members. His lawyer asked for a 27-year sentencing, arguing that he should be given a chance at rehabilitation.
The question of whether Florida has gone too far in sentencing juveniles to life without parole may be settled in two different forums this year.
The most dramatic answer will come from the U.S. Supreme Court. After hearing arguments in November, the nation's highest court will decide whether Florida violated the constitutional ban against cruel-and-unusual punishment when sentencing a 16-year-old convicted of armed burglary in Jacksonville and a 13-year-old convicted of rape in Pensacola to serve the rest of their lives in prison for their crimes.
The court has previously ruled the death penalty was unconstitutional for juveniles because of their physical and psychological differences from adults.
The decision on life sentences could come in the next few months.
In another sign that Florida itself may be rethinking its handling of juvenile lifers is a more modest step being pursued by state lawmakers.
For the third year in a row, lawmakers are debating the "Second Chance for Children in Prison Act" promoted by Florida State University's Public Interest Law Center - which published a study last year highlighting Florida's aggressive use of life without parole for juveniles who commit nonlethal crimes.
The bill - which has cleared initial committees in the House and Senate - would offer a chance at parole for a small group of juveniles who had committed crimes when they were 15 and younger, and had already served at least eight years of their sentences.
Imposing an array of standards the young prisoners would have to meet, House sponsors projected as few as 23 prisoners might have the chance to be considered - not necessarily get - parole. And that was before a House committee amended the bill further limiting its application.
Rep. Michael Weinstein, a Republican and prosecutor from Jacksonville, described the legislation as the first step in getting lawmakers to reconsider their hardline stance in denying parole to all prisoners - adults or juveniles.
"It is an uphill battle to crack that door open," Weinstein said. "If it proves to be successful, then possibly we can expand."
Among those supporting the bill is former Leon County Circuit Judge Janet Ferris, who has also served as a prosecutor and legal adviser to juvenile justice and law-enforcement agencies.
Describing the lack of maturity and judgment in many of the young criminals, Ferris recalled watching armed robbery defendants "cry in disbelief when I said I was not going to release them from a detention center."
"Some juveniles are so damaged when they explode into the criminal-justice system that they cannot be safely released back into society, but many of them can," Ferris told a House committee.
Yet, passage of the juvenile parole bill remains in doubt.
Last week, the bill cleared the Senate Criminal Justice Committee with some of the chamber's most conservative members - including Republican Party Chairman John Thrasher and former Citrus County sheriff Charlie Dean - voting for it.
But a no vote came from Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, chairman of the Senate budget committee that oversees criminal-justice spending.
The bill will likely have to clear Crist's committee before it reaches the Senate floor. Crist, who was involved in writing sentencing laws while in the House, said lawmakers have made it clear in how the sentences should be handled.
"Life means life," Crist said. "We had problems in the past with judges just giving out life sentences when they could, knowing that they were meaningless. Today, they more strongly scrutinize giving out a life sentence. They don't give them out haphazardly.
"If a juvenile earns a life sentence, they've earned it because they have committed the most heinous of crimes in the most heinous of ways, and their rap sheets are extremely long."
Copyright 2010 Lakeland Ledger Publishing Corporation
- Juvenile Offenders