Life Sentences Deemed Cruel and Unusual Punishment in Juvenile Sentencing


Young v. State of Florida – Florida’s Second District Court of Appeals

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In Graham v. State, the U.S. Supreme Court examined the issue of life sentences without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders. From this case, it was established sentences of life without the possibility of parole were unconstitutional for juveniles who did not commit homicides. Therefore, all life sentences without the possibility of parole were deemed to be cruel and unusual punishment for juvenile non-homicide offenders.

Notably, however, Graham did not prohibit all life sentences for juvenile non-homicide offenders. Graham held only if a sentencing court imposes a sentence of life, it must provide the offender with some realistic opportunity to obtain release before the end of the term. Graham made a deliberate decision to permit each state to develop its own procedures for determining how, when and with what degree of frequency any review of a juvenile non-homicide offender’s life sentence must occur. States may choose to provide this opportunity through:

  • parole hearings,
  • early release,
  • conditional release,
  • “bonus” gain time, or
  • other statutory methods yet to be devised

In the case of Young v. State, Kenneth Ray Young was 14 and 15 years old when he committed a series of four armed robberies. He was originally sentenced to concurrent life sentences without the possibility of parole for each conviction. After the Supreme Court released its opinion in Graham, Young filed a Motion to Correct Illegal Sentence and the court scheduled a resentencing hearing.

During the resentencing hearing, the court took evidence and considered in detail the nature of Young’s offenses, the manner in which they were committed, Young’s youthfulness at the time of the offenses, Young’s statements about his culpability at the time of his arrest, Young’s behavior during his trials, the Criminal Punishment Code scoresheets applicable to Young’s convictions, the evidence presented concerning Young’s behavior and rehabilitation during his time in prison, the statutory bases for downward departure sentence, and the arguments of the parties as to an appropriate sentence.

While the sentencing court recognized Young’s efforts at rehabilitation, it sentenced Young to the sentence deemed appropriate based on the totality of the circumstances surrounding his offenses. Young was therefore resentenced to concurrent terms of thirty years in prison followed by ten years probation.

In his appeal, Young contended that Graham required the court to use the resentencing hearing as the procedural mechanism through which he would have a “meaningful opportunity” to obtain his release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.

The appellate court rejected his argument for two reasons:

1. The resentencing court complied with the requirements of Graham when it granted Young’s motion for a new sentence and sentenced him to a term other than life without the possibility of parole. Graham does not require that a resentencing hearing be the mechanism for an opportunity to seek release based upon rehabilitation and maturity. Once the resentencing court imposed a nonlife sentence on Young, its obligations under Graham were fulfilled.

2. Even if the court agreed with Young that Graham required the resentencing hearing as an opportunity for Young to gain release based on maturity and rehabilitation, the record shows the resentencing court did so. The fact the resentencing court did not give weight to Young’s rehabilitative efforts does not mean the court failed to consider that evidence in reaching its sentencing decision. In fact, the resentencing court could have resentenced Young to a life sentence and devised some means of providing him with an opportunity for later release.

Graham did not alter Florida’s Criminal Punishment Code to the extent that it sets forth requirements for calculating the lowest permissible prison sentence to which the juvenile offender is exposed. Further, Graham did not add “maturity and rehabilitation” as grounds for a downward departure sentence under Florida’s sentencing statutes. Therefore, Young has a sentence that specifically provides for his eventual release, and he is not entitled under Graham to any additional relief.

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