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Youth sent to prison unsettles lawmakers

Child advocates say the case of a 14-year-old sentenced to life in prison illustrates the harshness of Florida's laws and the need for changes.

By ALISA ULFERTS

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 14, 2001


TALLAHASSEE -- Fourteen-year-old Lionel Tate's sentence was life in prison. He spent three days there.

Tate, sentenced Friday for murdering a 6-year-old girl, was transferred Monday evening to a juvenile facility in Okeechobee. Even in a state with a tough stance on juvenile crime, sending a 14-year-old into the adult prison system was considered too harsh by the people who run it. Officials feared he would be targeted by older inmates.

Now, some child advocates are calling for a review of Florida's criminal justice system, which increasingly is sending juveniles on a fast track to adult prison. They say that state lawmakers have extended many get-tough laws to youthful offenders, and have imposed mandatory sentences that give judges little leeway.

"We are by far the No. 1 state in the nation for how we escalate into the adult system," said Jack Levine, president of the Center for Florida's Children.

"What the Tate case gives us is a forum to not only look at young people, but to look in a mirror," Levine added.

Already Gov. Jeb Bush has said he'll consider clemency in the case if Tate's attorneys request it. And members of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee on Tuesday unanimously approved a bill that would allow youthful offenders sentenced as adults to be held at facilities intended for young offenders who have committed less-serious crimes.

"Even the lawmakers think this is wrong," said Howard Babb, president of the Florida Public Defenders Association.

Nancy Daniels, the public defender for the 2nd Judicial Circuit in Tallahassee, said she hopes the Tate case will make legislators think again before they pass laws that push more juveniles into the adult system.

"It seems to me that over the last three or four years, every (legislative) session there's been at least one bill that would increase the likelihood of adult treatment for juveniles," said Daniels, who also serves as legislative committee chairman for the Florida Public Defenders Association.

State lawmakers last year voted to allow prosecutors to charge 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in some cases when the teens had previous criminal records. Lawmakers also extended the state's 10-20-Life sentencing guidelines to some teens convicted of a gun-related crime, Daniels said.

And the year before that, lawmakers added grand theft of a motor vehicle worth more than $20,000 to the list of crimes for which prosecutors can charge some juveniles as adults, she added.

Yet this is happening at a time when violent juvenile crimes appear to be holding steady, Daniels said.

"For some reason, there doesn't seem to be a wide perception of that."

Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary W.G. "Bill" Bankhead agreed Tuesday that overall, juvenile crimes are down, though some violent crimes may have increased slightly. And transferring someone charged and convicted as an adult from the prison system to juvenile justice is rare -- it's only happened 18 times since 1983, he said. But in Tate's case, it was an appropriate move, Bankhead said.

"He's an exceptionally young person to be in the adult system," Bankhead said.

In Florida prisons, there are 14 inmates who were 13 or 14 at the time of their crime and were convicted of first-degree murder, according to the Department of Corrections.

When asked about the other children in situations similar to Tate's, Bush said only: "I think you need to look at it on a case-by-case basis."

Sen. Steve Geller, D-Hallandale, introduced the bill adopted Tuesday in committee to allow juvenile offenders who have committed serious crimes to go to the facilities while they are young and vulnerable to attacks from other inmates. Once they become adults, they would be transferred to adult facilities.

"There is no other way to protect 14-year-olds from being raped or assaulted," Geller said. Another 14-year-old boy, Tronneal Mangum, inspired Geller to file his bill. Mangum had never been in any trouble before when he brought a gun to school and fired it at a friend who died. In 1998 the Palm Beach County resident was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole. He has served his time in adult prisons.

Prisons for youthful offenders were established to create an atmosphere designed to educate and train offenders so they would be less likely to pursue a life of crime when released.

But Sen. Rod Smith, D-Gainesville, a former prosecutor, questioned a move to put young inmates in a place that was originally designed to help rehabilitate those who have not committed serious crimes and were serving 10 years or less.

"These facilities were designed to be an intermediate zone of prisons that still gave education and training," Smith said. "Now in the name of public safety, we are going to put life felons in with youthful offenders. A huge number will qualify."

- Times staff writers Lucy Morgan and Julie Hauserman contributed to this report, and information from the Associated Press was used.

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