When a court goes rogue

Our country’s judicial system is supposed to march to the beat of one drum, the Supreme Court.

However, there are rumblings of courts disregarding stare decisis, or legal precedence as established by prior ruling. The Supreme Court of Florida, for example. A grand charade has been playing out in Florida since 2016 regarding juvenile criminal justice reform.

The cascade of juvenile justice reform began in 2005 with Roper v. Simmons. In that decision, SCOTUS declared — mostly based on science detailing the development of the human brain — that juveniles are different from adults. They declared the death penalty to be an unlawful cruel and unusual punishment for juveniles convicted of murder. Other cases followed, building on this landmark decision.

In a 2011 decision, Graham v. Florida, SCOTUS banned life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of nonhomicide crimes because juveniles should be given a “meaningful opportunity to be released from prison based on their maturity and rehabilitation.” In 2012, with Miller v. Alabama, SCOTUS prohibited automatic life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of homicide, establishing that juveniles must have an individualized sentencing structure. Deciding life without parole sentences should be reserved for only the worst of the worst juvenile offenders.

In 2016, in Atwell v. State, a 4–3 decision, the Supreme Court Of Florida decided that Florida’s archaic parole system was the equivalent of life without parole and failed to give juveniles the meaningful opportunity for release related in Graham and Miller. Pursuant to the decision in Atwell, approximately 650 juvenile offenders serving parole-eligible life sentences in Florida would be given a chance to be resentenced to something less than life.

In 2018, three of the Justices on the Supreme Court Of Florida were forced to retire based on age restrictions. All three voted in favor of Atwell. After replacing these Justices, the newly impaneled court relied on an unrelated pleading in Virginia to recede from their previous opinion in Atwell and declared the parole system in Florida adequate.

In 2016, Atwell v. State was final. There was never an appeal filed by the State of Florida. It was done and decided and should have remained that way.

By reversing their ruling in Atwell in 2018, the Supreme Court of Florida violated stare decisis. Atwell was decided in 2016 based on established legal precedent. The science regarding juvenile brain development relied on by SCOTUS remained legal precedent through Simmons, Graham, and Miller, would no longer apply in Atwell. The parole system in Florida, which was deemed grossly inadequate in 2016, was suddenly seen as good enough in 2018. Though there was no meaningful change in parole policy regarding juveniles.

The Supreme Court of Florida literally pulled the rug out from under all the juveniles still waiting for their day in court. Trial courts were slow to process resentencing requests. As a result, only approximately 100 of those initially affected by the Atwell decision were resentenced. More than 500 were unceremoniously denied the chance.

It is wrong.

This is a topic very personal to me. I know because I am among the 100 who were resentenced. Without the strides our country began taking in 2005, I would still be in prison waiting to die. By denying the other 500 their rightful opportunity to be resentenced, the State of Florida is committing an injustice. The other 500 deserve a chance.

I know that every one of the 500 affected were at least involved in a homicide. Innocent lives were taken, and they can never be returned. SCOTUS knows this too, and they still ruled that juvenile offenders should get a chance to come home.

Florida should revisit this injustice.

Robert Lefleur works as a prison consultant.

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