In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Florida’s tough stance on crime is expensive indulgence

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that a kid like Shimeek Gridine can’t be saddled with a mandatory life sentence.

So a circuit judge in Jacksonville sentenced the child to 70 years behind bars. For the young convict, the benefits of the high court’s ruling must seem elusive.

Shimeek was baby-faced 14 when he was arrested for armed robbery and attempted murder in 2009, after he and a 12-year-old accomplice attempted to rob a Jacksonville convenience store. He fired a shotgun during the botched robbery, leaving the store clerk with superficial wounds. The boy pleaded guilty, but the judge piled another 30 years atop the prosecutor’s recommended 40-year sentence.

Under state law, if Shimeek gets all possible credit for good behavior, he’ll be 77 before he emerges from prison. If he lives that long. The average American life span of 78 doesn’t apply to prisoners. A study published last year in the American Journal of Public Health calculated that for every year spent behind bars, a prisoner’s life expectancy decreases by two years. The youngster will spend the rest of his life among a prison population suffering high rates of HIV, syphilis, tuberculosis, hepatitis and various diseases associated with chronic smokers.

Odds are that Shimeek Gridine won’t get out alive.

The Supreme Court ruled that in non-homicide cases, for child offenders, “A state is not required to guarantee eventual freedom to such an offender, but must impose a sentence that provides some meaningful opportunity for release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”

“Meaningful opportunity for release” won’t mean much to a dead man.

The Supreme Court ruling came out of another Florida case, a 16-year-old armed burglar named Terrance Jamar Graham sentenced to life with no possibility of release. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing the majority opinion, noted that the state “has denied him any chance to later demonstrate that he is fit to rejoin society based solely on a non-homicide crime that he committed while he was a child in the eyes of the law.”

At the time the Supreme Court considered the case, only 129 juvenile offenders in U.S. prisons were serving life without parole sentences for crimes other than homicide — 77 of them in Florida. Meanwhile, 39 states had no juvenile convicts in non-homicide cases serving life without parole. After Florida, Louisiana was the next toughest state with 17.

It would seem that the Supreme Court had Florida in mind. But in 2012, Florida’s First District Court of Appeal upheld Gridine’s sentence. Judge James Wolf dissented, wondering, “Is a 60-year sentence lawful, but a 70-year sentence not? Regardless, it is clear to me that appellant [Gridine] will spend most of his life in prison. This result would appear to violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the Graham decision.”

In October, young Gridine’s lawyer was trying again, this time before the state Supreme Court, arguing what would seem to be the obvious: That a 70-year sentence was tantamount to life. Though the best Shimeek could hope for, if the Supreme Court sides with his lawyer, would be the possibility of parole after 25 years.

But that introduces a sticky legal problem. In 1995, in another ill-considered gesture back when legislators were trying to outdo one another in getting tough on crime, Florida abolished parole. We still have a functioning state parole commission, but it deals only with the dwindling number of inmates (about 5,100) sentenced before the 1995 law was passed.

If the state legislature reinstated parole (a mighty if), Florida judges could fashion mean-sounding “life” sentences for the toughest juvenile cases that would still be compatible with the U.S. Supreme Court edict — rather than send a child like Gridine away until he’s 77.

Parole would also give Florida politicians a face-saving way out of another absurdity — the warehousing of harmless, elderly, sickly, very expensive prisoners who otherwise will serve out their mandatory sentences as high security nursing home patients. While a young prisoner costs about $22,000 a year, inmates over 50 (considered old by prison standards), with their escalating medical needs, run the cost up to about $67,000 per year.

Parole would allow Florida a civilized alternative to the legislature’s bizarre and costly notion that a 14-year-old should be subject to the same mandatory sentencing standards devised for adult convicts. Otherwise, by the time Shimeek Gridine walks out of prison at age 77 (if he lives that long), he’ll have become a very expensive indulgence in Florida’s get-tough-on-crime politics.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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