Juvenile Life Sentences

Life without Parole…Unconstitutional for some juvenile offenders

By: Brooke Elvington, Esq.

The United States Supreme Court, for the first time, held that life without parole sentences categorically violate the Eighth Amendment’s clause prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment for juvenile (non-homicide) offenders.  See Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010). The Supreme Court extended Graham to homicide offenses in 2012 in Miller v. Alabama. Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012). It is important to note that life sentences remain possible for homicide offenders under Miller, but the Court must be permitted to consider mitigating factors related to the offender’s status as a juvenile prior to the imposition of sentence. This is critical in states such as Florida where a conviction for first-degree murder requires a life sentence without parole or death. Thus, if a juvenile is convicted of first-degree murder, the Court has no discretion to consider mitigating factors. This is the precise scenario that Miller deemed unconstitutional. Shortly after Miller, the Supreme Court held that juvenile offenders sentenced prior to Miller, may seek to correct their sentences retroactively. See Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S.Ct. 718 (2016). As such, juvenile offenders sentenced to life without parole in Florida for any offense are entitled to seek relief.   

Florida juvenile offenders who received a life sentence, (or sentence equivalent to life), may pursue relief under Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure 3.800. The legislature responded to Graham and Miller by creating a new sentencing scheme for juvenile offenders pursuant to chapter 2014-220, Laws of Florida. §921.1402(2)(c) (2014). Pursuant to the new sentencing scheme, under 921.1401 juvenile offenders convicted of felonies punishable by life are entitled to a sentencing hearing where the court must consider enumerated factors pertaining to the offender’s status as a child such as the following:

a. The nature and circumstances of the offense committed by the defendant.

b. The effect of the crime on the victim’s family and the community.

c. The defendant’s age, maturity, intellectual capacity, and mental and emotional health at the time of the offense.

d. The defendant’s background, including his or her family, home and community environment.

e. The effect, if any, of immaturity, impetuosity, or failure to appreciate risks and consequences of the defendant’s participation in the offense.

f. The extent of the defendant’s participation in the offense.

g. The effect, if any, of familial pressure or peer pressure on the defendant’s actions.

h. The nature and extent of the defendant’s prior criminal history.

i. The effect, if any, of characteristics attributable to the defendant’s youth on the defendant’s judgment.

j. The possibility of rehabilitating the defendant.

Fla. Stat. §921.1401.

Obviously, the statute applies to new offenders; however, the Florida Supreme Court reversed a life sentence for a homicide offense and ordered that the Trial Court conduct a new sentencing hearing applying the above-mentioned factors. See Landrum v. State, 192 So. 3d 459 (Fla. 2016).  

In addition, juvenile offenders may seek relief pursuant to Section 921.1402. Although the Florida legislature has not reinstated parole, Section 921.1402 effectively provides an avenue for sentence review and early release after serving a twenty-five year prison term. The language of the statutory section applies to offenses committed on or after July 1, 2014; however, the Supreme Court’s reasoning as illustrated in Landrum indicates that offenders previously sentenced without the benefit of the legislative changes may seek relief. 

In conclusion, juveniles sentenced to life without parole, (or the equivalent), for any offense are entitled to seek relief pursuant to Rule 3.800. The remedy would involve a new sentencing hearing where the court may consider all relevant statutory factors as illustrated above. 

To have your case evaluated by an experienced appellate and post-conviction attorney, contact Brooke Elvington today. 727-543-7188