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Courts Ponder: When Is Juve's Long Prison Term Effectively Life?

August 8, 2012 - 6:00pm

A district appeals court urged the state Supreme Court on Wednesday to weigh in on how long is too long when sentencing a juvenile for crimes other than murder, since the U.S. Supreme Court has said such kids can't spend their entire lives in prison.

A three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal noted that the lower courts have disagreed on just how long a juvenile would have to be sentenced for it to be a "de facto life sentence." The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2010, in Graham v. Florida, that it was unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life sentences for nonhomicide crimes.

Since then, appeals courts have found that in some cases where the sentence wasn't technically life, the juvenile would still be likely to spend life in prison, because the term of years was longer than their life expectancy.

That was exactly what the DCA found in the particular case at issue Wednesday. The court ordered a new sentence for a 16-year-old, Demahgio Adams, who robbed and shot someone multiple times but without killing the victim and was given a sentence that would require him to serve at least 58 and a half years, meaning he wouldn't be released until he is nearly 76. That would exceed his life expectancy, the court said, finding the sentence a "de facto" life sentence that is unconstitutional.

But at least one other DCA in the state has held differently, so the judges said the state Supreme Court should decide whether the Graham opinion applies to long sentences that aren't technically life sentences, and "if so, at what point does a term-of-years sentence become a de facto life sentence?"

Several juveniles have appealed sentences since the Graham decision and the 1st DCA noted that a decision on the issue is likely to come from state's highest court sooner or later anyway.

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