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Impact of Supreme Court Decision Still Unknown

A decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this week could have a major impact on Florida's judicial system – but nobody knows exactly how big that impact may be.

On Monday, the high court ruled that life without parole for juveniles who did not commit murder was equivalent to cruel and unusual punishment. To put someone so young away for life would not give them the chance to develop and re-enter society, the court wrote.

The decision may change the fate of 77 Florida inmates sentenced to life while still under the age of 18. It reopens their cases for revised sentencing and the potential for lawmakers to turn the decision into a political opportunity to push for harsher criminal penalties that stop just short of the Supreme Court's ban on life without parole.

Following the decision, Attorney General Bill McCollum released a statement saying he would be working with the Legislature to “identify and implement solutions” to issues created by the Supreme Court decision.

“This ruling will have a significant impact on our state's juvenile justice and corrections systems both going forward and for current inmates, and Florida will need to make provisions to address these issues,” he said.

Neither McCollum's office nor the Supreme Court has determined exactly how big of a financial impact the decision could have on the court or correctional system. And the Legislature, if it does take up the issue, will likely not do so until next year when it returns for the 2011 session.

According to a 2009 Florida State University study cited in the court opinion, 77 out of 109 juveniles facing life without parole for non-homicide crimes were from Florida. The study concluded that Florida's laws were “out of step with the nation.”

But state officials argued that Florida has the right to set its own criminal penalties.

“The states have sovereign responsibility over their own criminal justice systems, and their legislatures decide the appropriate mix of punishment, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation in determining appropriate prison sentences,” the state wrote in its brief filed on the case. “This Court has consistently recognized that only in exceedingly rare cases should the exceptional deference owed to states be overridden.”

Though the nine justices voted 6-3 to overturn the case of a Florida man, Terrance Graham, who brought the suit, the decision to make it a blanket policy for all juvenile offenders squeaked by with a much closer vote, 5-4.

“The Court has recognized that defendants who do not kill, intend to kill, or foresee that life will be taken are categorically less deserving of the most serious forms of punishment than are murderers,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in the majority opinion.

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