Juvenile felons get do-over, court rules

Miami Herald Editorial Board

Angelo Atwell, of Broward County, was sentenced to life in prison as a 16-year-old. He would not be eligible for parole until 2130.
Angelo Atwell, of Broward County, was sentenced to life in prison as a 16-year-old. He would not be eligible for parole until 2130. Florida Department of Corrections

Sentencing a juvenile to prison with possible parole more than a century away is a life sentence no matter what it is called.

The Florida Supreme Court correctly recognized that such a parole scheme and a life sentence amount to a distinction without a difference and found the system unconstitutional.

That tracks the precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court and should lead to resentencing hearings for hundreds of inmates, in Florida and elsewhere who were sentenced as juveniles to life with parole.

Florida gradually eliminated parole during the 1980s and ’90s, but it remained an option for first-degree murder sentences until 1994.

Under that system, juveniles convicted of first-degree murder were sentenced just like adults were, and being a minor wasn’t a factor.

The 1992 conviction of Angelo Atwell for the Broward County murder of McArthur High School economics teacher Margaret Holuczak, 40, in the driveway of her Wilton Manors duplex during an armed robbery raised the question of young people receiving life sentences with virtually no chance of parole.

Mr. Atwell, now 41, was 16 when charged with the crime in 1990. Last year, a state board decided he couldn’t be up for parole until 2130 — 140 years after the crime.

In reality, it is a life sentence with no chance of parole, which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional for juveniles in a 2012 opinion.

As Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente wrote in the 4-3 majority opinion in the case of Atwell vs. Florida, the state’s parole system fails to recognize how children are different from adults.

“While technically Mr. Atwell is parole-eligible, it is a virtual certainty that Atwell will spend the rest of his life in prison,” she wrote.

She pointed out that Mr. Atwell’s age was not considered in tailoring his life sentence and that “the current parole process similarly fails to take into account the offender’s juvenile status at the time of the offense, and effectively forces juvenile offenders to serve disproportionate sentences”' like those forbidden by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The practical impact is that several hundred prison inmates who were sentenced as juveniles and have no realistic hope of parole should be resentenced under current law. State law now requires courts to consider “youth-related sentencing factors” when imposing a sentence from 40 years to life, and the sentence is reviewed after 25 years by a trial judge who can modify it based on several factors.

That is the correct approach to both punish juveniles for serious crimes and take into account their particular circumstances.

Florida Justices Charles Canady, Fred Lewis and Ricky Polston disagreed. Judge Polston wrote in a short dissent joined by the others that the current system allows for adequate review.

“The majority’s decision reaches too far into the merits of a parole process not at issue in this case because of the majority's unjustified perception and suspicion of the Parole Commission's periodic review,” he wrote.

That position gives too much deference to the current process and is at odds with its practical consequences.

The Florida Supreme Court’s majority reached a sensible conclusion that is more in line with the U.S. Supreme Court opinion on the sentencing of juveniles.

This editorial first appeared in the Tampa Bay Times.