Teenager's 10-year sentence creates an uproar
By CARRIE JOHNSON, Times Staff Writer
INVERNESS -- Charlotte Coadic was shocked when she walked into her garage one January afternoon this year and found someone pilfering a six-pack of beer from her refrigerator.
The mysterious thief fled before she could see his face.
Now the 17-year-old youth who stole the beer is facing a 10-year prison term for the crime. And even Coadic believes the sentence is extreme.
"If I had known he was only 17, I wouldn't have called the cops," she said. "I would have given him a good tongue-lashing and sent him home."
Last week, Circuit Judge Ric A. Howard told Adam Bollenback he would give him a sentence that would "break your spirit."
In the process, Howard ignited a local uproar. Protesters picketed outside the Citrus County courthouse last week and angry residents flooded local newspapers with calls and letters.
At least one community activist plans to write a letter of complaint to the Judicial Qualifications Commission. Others are calling on Howard to resign.
Few disagree that Bollenback deserved punishment: In addition to stealing the beer, he fled a patrol car after he was caught by authorities. He also has a record of convictions as a juvenile.
But Bollenback's friends and family have called the sentence unnecessarily harsh and are launching a campaign to overturn it.
"We'll do whatever it takes to keep Adam out of prison," said his mother, Cheryl Bollenback.
While the judge's decision may be unpopular, experts say it's not illegal.
Bollenback was charged with petty theft, burglary and escape for the Jan. 20 incident. Prosecutors tried him in the adult system, a move that was within their discretion.
Both burglary and escape are second-degree felonies, which means they are punishable by up to 15 years in prison. As a result, Bollenback faced a maximum possible penalty of 30 years in prison.
However, the state of Florida has developed sentencing guidelines to aid judges when handing down penalties. These standards weigh factors such as prior criminal history, age and the severity of the crime.
The guidelines recommended Bollenback spend three years and nine months in prison for his crimes.
In 1998, the Florida Legislature passed a law that allowed judges to exceed the guidelines up to the statutory maximum, which in Bollenback's case would be 30 years.
"As long as the judge stays within the maximum, there is no basis for an appeal," said professor Robert Batey, who teaches criminal law at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport.
Bollenback was sentenced to nine years for the burglary charge and one year for the arrest charge. According to state law, the sentence for escape must be served after the punishment for any other charges.
The youth was also sentenced to time already served in the Citrus County jail on the count of petty theft. The Department of Corrections and the Department of Juvenile Justice recommended more lenient treatment than the guidelines. Corrections officials suggested two years of house arrest with an electronic monitoring ankle bracelet, while the DJJ thought a stint in a high-level youth facility would be appropriate.
During an emergency hearing last week, defense attorney Jim Cummins argued the punishment was illegal because Howard disregarded the recommendations of those agencies without giving a written reason.
But that rule only applies to juveniles. Assistant State Attorney David Porter argued Bollenback was no longer considered a juvenile because he was convicted in adult court.
Howard agreed with Porter and stood by the sentence.
Howard declined to comment for this article. Porter was out of the office Friday and could not be reached for comment.
Now Cummins will take his argument to the 5th District Court of Appeal and seek to have the sentence vacated, or set aside.
Others in the community are also rooting for a successful appeal. Local activist Ansel Briggs wrote letters to Gov. Jeb Bush and the Judicial Qualifications Commission protesting Howard's actions.
"I think it's unethical for a judge to "break the spirit' of anybody," Briggs said.
One facet that has been largely overlooked is Bollenback's mental illness, said Joan Murphy, the head of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill of Citrus County.
Bollenback has been diagnosed as bipolar and has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Most of his criminal offenses have occurred while he was not taking his medication, Bollenback's mother told Howard during her son's sentencing hearing.
Murphy said youths like Bollenback need treatment to be kept from re-offending.
"Unfortunately, it's just so common. The jail doors swing so wide and so often for the mentally ill, but it's almost impossible to get them into a proper facility," Murphy said.
This is not the first penalty handed down by Howard that has raised eyebrows.
The judge, who took office in January 2001 after former Circuit Judge Michael Blackstone resigned, once sentenced a 19-year-old man to a 12-year prison term for having sex with a 14-year-old girl.
Anthony Borraccini was convicted of lewd and lascivious battery on a child younger than 16. He said the sex was consensual; the girl said she was coerced.
A legal expert interviewed by the St. Petersburg Times shortly after Borraccini's sentencing in April called the punishment "unbelieveable" and said it was so out of proportion it may be considered unconstitutional.
As for Cheryl Bollenback, she said she has been grateful for the outpouring of support she has received since the sentencing hearing.
"I feel uplifted," she said. "I'm so proud of everybody who has been speaking out."
Her telephone has hardly stopped ringing during the last few days. Most of the callers have voiced their disapproval of her son's sentence and urged her to continue the fight.
"I'm hearing the same words -- "outraged' and "appalled,' " Cheryl Bollenback said. "Those are the words that everyone seems to be using."
-- Carrie Johnson can be reached at 860-7309 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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