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Legislature adopts harder line on violent juvenile offenders

Both chambers approve bills that will treat as adults young repeat offenders and those who use a gun in crimes.

By WILLIAM YARDLEY and JO BECKER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 5, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- State lawmakers moved Tuesday to strengthen penalties for juvenile offenders, including mandatory prison sentences for 16-year-olds who carry guns while committing certain crimes.

The Senate voted 32-5 to sentence 16- and 17-year-olds as adults if they commit serious gun-related crimes and if they have been convicted of a prior felony.

The House voted 80-31 for a separate measure requiring state attorneys to charge 16- and 17-year-olds as adults if they have three prior felonies and are charged with a fourth, violent felony. The policy would apply even if a judge withheld an official finding of guilt.

Versions of both bills are expected to pass each chamber and then be delivered to Gov. Jeb Bush, who supports the measures.

The Senate bill on gun-related crimes, sponsored by Spring Hill Republican Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, would require judges to sentence juveniles convicted of gun-related crimes according to the "10-20-Life" guidelines Bush pushed through the Legislature for adult criminals last year. The House version, which passed a committee Tuesday but has yet to come to a floor vote, makes the sentencing guidelines optional.

The 10-20-Life guidelines mandate 10 years in prison for having a gun during a crime, 20 years for using it and 25 years to life for seriously hurting or killing someone.

Five Democratic senators voted against extending the 10-20-Life guidelines, saying it could put teenagers in prison for decades without giving them a chance of rehabilitation. Prosecutors already have considerable leeway in how they charge juveniles and in the sentences they seek.

"The answer is not simply to get tough, which is what legislators often do as a knee-jerk reaction," said Jacksonville State Attorney Harry Shorstein. "The answer is to get smart."

Shorstein is widely known for aggressively prosecuting juveniles as adults but for seeking sentences that focus on rehabilitation.

George Hinchliffe, assistant secretary for programming and planning at the Department of Juvenile Justice, said the 10-20-Life plan would have affected about 225 juvenile offenders last year. Hinchliffe said not giving those teenagers such strict sentences is "sending entirely the wrong message to other juveniles."

Rep. Josephus Eggelletion, a Democrat from Lauderdale Lakes, voted for the House bill, but warned of its consequences. "The earlier you put these kids in prison, what you're going to get is more violent adults," he said. "That kid is going to learn some real tricks."

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