Last week, the Florida Supreme Court decided Kelsey v. State, the latest case to guarantee juvenile defendants serving long prison terms a chance at a new sentence. To understand the opinion, some background on juvenile resentencing in Florida is required. In the landmark decision of Graham v. Florida, the United States Supreme Court held that Florida's practice of giving juvenile offenders life sentences for non-homicide crimes violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
While the Court's holding was simple, implementing the new Graham sentencing regime proved more complex. Florida (and other states) were now required to resentence all juvenile offenders who had received illegal life sentences. In the years following Graham, Florida courts took up the task of implementing Graham on their own, allowing juvenile offenders with life sentences to receive new sentencing hearings. However, in 2014 the Florida Legislature passed chapter 2014-220, in part, to create a new resentencing scheme that complied with Graham.
The legislature's re-sentencing provision swept in a broader array of sentences than the Graham decision, and required judicial review for all juvenile offenders who were sentenced to more than twenty (20) years. Last year, in a case called Henry v. State, the Florida Supreme Court held that the new provision applied to any term of imprisonment where a juvenile would not have a meaningful opportunity at early release during their natural lives based on their demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.
Kelsey addressed the issue of what should happen to a juvenile offender who was resentenced after Graham, but before the effective date of the legislature's resentencing provision. Kelsey himself initially received a life-sentence for his crime, but was resentenced in January 2014 to forty-five (45) years without the possibility of early release. Kelsey's criminal defense attorney argued that he should be entitled to a new resentencing, since he did not receive the benefit of the 2014 statutory provision at his initial post-Graham resentencing. The Supreme Court agreed, and found that Kelsey's sentence triggered the judicial review provision of the statute, since he was sentenced to more than 20 years without the possibility of early release.
This new decision will allow juveniles to be resentenced if they were resentenced under Graham prior to the 2014 statute went into effect. However, the Court was careful to point out that the infirmity with Kelsey's sentence was not the length of the sentence itself, but the fact that his 45-year prison term did not give him an opportunity to be released early upon a showing of maturation and rehabilitation. At his new resentencing, the State could still seek to impose a life sentence on Kelsey, so long as that sentence provides a meaningful opportunity for early release.