Atwell v. Florida: Long Sentences of Youth Deserve Review, State High Court Rules

Juvenile offenders who are serving sentences so long they essentially amount to life in prison are entitled to a judicial review, the Florida Supreme Court ruled recently. prison6

In Atwell v. Florida, the court ruled that reviews are in order even when the offender technically has a shot at parole.

It was not a decision the court reached easily, as the end vote  was 4-3. The decision by the majority will serve to greatly expand the number of juvenile offenders who now qualify for resentencing. In fact, hundreds of people convicted for crime like murder or rape while they were minors now have a second chance at sentencing.

The decision was building upon a series of recent rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court that resulted in barring automatic life sentences for youths where the court failed to factor in defendant’s age or immaturity.

Our Miami juvenile defense lawyers know this may be the last shot these offenders have at freedom. Such cases should only be entrusted to experienced, dedicated criminal defense attorneys.

Paolo Annino, a law professor at Florida State University, noted this could open doors for approximately 300 juvenile offenders, some of whom were sentenced decades ago.

In the Atwell case, defendant had just turned 16 in the summer of 1990. That’s when he was charged with armed robbery and murder of a high school economics teacher in Broward County. As the country was emerging from the high-crime era of the 1980s, politicians everywhere had passed “tough on crime” legislation that drew a hard line in the sand when it came to sentencing. In Florida, someone convicted of murder had one of two options:

  • The death penalty;
  • Life in prison with parole after 25 years in prison.

Atwell received the latter, even though in 1992, when he was sentenced, juveniles could still receive the death penalty.

Now 41, defendant had a parole hearing last year. At that time, the commissioner told him the earliest he would be considered for release was in the winter of 2130. That is more than 140 years after the date of his offense. So yes, technically he is eligible for parole. But as Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente noted, he’s almost certain to spend the rest of his life in prison.

Drawing from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the way the state’s existing parole system is, there is no provision for individualized consideration of a defendant’s youthful status. What that means is that Atwell – like many other youthful offenders – has been handed a sentence that is virtually indistinguishable from life without parole, which means it is unconstitutional.

To clarify: That doesn’t necessarily mean he and the others won’t spend their life behind bars. What it means is that before they do, the court must take into account their age and maturity. In a case like Atwell, the trial court never did that because the sentences were automatic.

The court’s decision will send Atwell’s case back to the trial court, where he will undergo resentencing. He faces a new sentence of between 40 years to life, with guaranteed review after 40 years.

It’s worth noting that Florida scrapped parole for the majority of offenses way back in 1983 and for murder too in 1994. But as of last summer, there were still more than 4,500 inmates in Florida prisons who were technically eligible for parole. The vast majority are probably never going to be released. The commission last fiscal year granted parole to one-half of a percent of those eligible – 28 total.

Contact the Miami criminal defense lawyers at Jacobs Keeley at (305) 358-7991 for a free consultation on your pending criminal matter.

Additional Resources:

Florida Supreme Court opens the door for new hearings for juvenile offenders, May 26, 2016, By Anna M. Phillips, Tampa Bay Times

More Blog Entries:

Hurst v. Florida – The Slow Death of the Death Penalty, Jan. 13, 2016, Miami Criminal Defense Attorney Blog