Lifers sen­tenced as ju­ve­niles have done their time: Re­lease them?

South Florida Times - - OPINION - As­so­ci­ated Press

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) – When she was 15, Chan­tay Clark shot and killed a woman while try­ing to steal a car. Later, she took a man’s truck at gun­point, forc­ing him to take cover in a cul­vert.

Cir­cuit Judge Michael An­drews knew all about her.

On Nov. 3, she stood shack­led in his Pinel­las court­room, hav­ing served 25 years of a life sen­tence. Now en­ter­ing mid­dle age, she was the ben­e­fi­ciary of court rul­ings that said ju­ve­niles who com­mit se­ri­ous crimes de­serve a mean­ing­ful chance of re­lease.

The state said she still de­served life.The de­fense sug­gested 40 years.

“I doubt that I’m go­ing to make any­body happy,” An­drews said.“I do not wish to leave Miss Clark in a worse po­si­tion than she was in. At the same time, I wish to pun­ish her for what it is that she did.” The judge gave her 50 years. Three days later, Clark, 40, walked out of the Pinel­las County jail a free woman.

What ac­counted for her abrupt re­lease? Gain time.

The con­cept of shav­ing time off an in­mate’s sen­tence was all but elim­i­nated in Florida in the 1990s. But now the old rules are resur­fac­ing for those con­demned long ago for crimes they com­mit­ted as ju­ve­niles.

For many for­mer lifers, it means they’ve done their time.

They are peo­ple like Sylvester Har­ris, who was 15 days from his 18th birth­day in 1975 when he took part in a rob­bery that left a man dead. He was re­sen­tenced to 60 years. But with credit for time served, plus more than 20 years worth of gain time, he was re­leased in Septem­ber.

They are peo­ple like Mark Be­fort, whom a jury con­victed of the 1979 rob­bery and mur­der of an el­derly Plant City man, a crime that oc­curred when he was 17. His sen­tence was re­duced to 70 years. With gain time, he was re­leased in July.

Ex­perts on ju­ve­nile re­sen­tenc­ing say it’s dif­fi­cult to pin­point how many cases might be af­fected. In each, there is tech­ni­cally no prom­ise that the de­fen­dant will get out.

But for those who have served 25 years, the chances are good.

“I think in those cases where the vic­tims are op­posed to any type of relief, it’s why they haven’t been re­solved yet,” said Roseanne Eck­ert, the co­or­di­nat­ing at­tor­ney for the Ju­ve­nile Re­sen­tenc­ing and Re­view Pro­ject at the Florida In­ter­na­tional Uni­ver­sity Col­lege of Law.“It will take sev­eral years.”

For some vic­tims and their fam­i­lies, the changes mean re­newed pain.

A week af­ter Clark’s re­lease, a let­ter ar­rived in Judge An­drews' cham­bers. It came from the un­cle of Abi­gail Barnes, who was 29 years old when Clark ended her life in 1992.

The un­cle, who had ar­gued against a new pun­ish­ment, spec­u­lated that the judge didn't re­al­ize how gain time would fac­tor into Clark's sen­tence. He said the judge should not have con­sid­ered any­thing but a new life sen­tence.

“For the mur­der of Abi­gail Barnes, Chan­tay Clark de­serves the harsh­est penalty avail­able,” Leo Barnes wrote. “For our fam­ily .?.?. Chan­tay Clark’s re­lease from pri­son af­ter serv­ing only 25 years is the worst pos­si­ble re­sult.”

A relic of Florida’s crim­i­nal jus­tice past, gain time was once ap­plied lib­er­ally to the sen­tences of just about ev­ery­one who en­tered the pri­son sys­tem.

In­mates could cut time off their sen­tences sim­ply by be­ing in pri­son. They could cut even more if they worked and be­haved them­selves while locked up.

Gain time helped re­lieve over­crowd­ing. But a back­lash came when the pub­lic learned some pris­on­ers were serv­ing as lit­tle as a third of their pun­ish­ments.

In 1995, the state Leg­is­la­ture passed a law re­quir­ing new in­mates to serve at least 85 per­cent of their sen­tences. About the same time, the state did away with pa­role. From then on, those sen­tenced to life would be des­tined to die in pri­son.

Nei­ther mea­sure was made retroac­tive, which meant the old rules still ap­plied to peo­ple al­ready in pri­son.

Two decades later, at­ti­tudes about crim­i­nal jus­tice have changed, es­pe­cially for young of­fend­ers. Stud­ies of teenage brains sup­port the claim that kids are less ca­pa­ble of ap­pre­ci­at­ing choices and un­der­stand­ing con­se­quences. They’re also more amenable to change.

That was part of the ba­sis for a pair of U.S. Supreme Court rul­ings, Gra­ham vs. Florida and Miller vs. Alabama, which deemed it un­con­sti­tu­tional to sen­tence ju­ve­niles to life or sim­i­larly long sen­tences.

“From a pub­lic pol­icy per­spec­tive, the Supreme Court de­ci­sion is just go­ing back to what we knew,” Eck­ert said. “We’ve al­ways known that chil­dren were dif­fer­ent.”

The rul­ings opened the door to new sen­tences for hundreds of Florida pris­on­ers.

Sylvester Har­ris was ac­cu­mu­lat­ing gain time from the day he en­tered pri­son in 1976. But with a life sen­tence, it never mat­tered.

He was 15 days from his 18th birth­day in 1975 when he and his adult girl­friend, Roberta Huff­man, choked and stabbed a man, Bruce Meagher, dur­ing a botched rob­bery.

He and Huff­man both got life sen­tences, with pa­role pos­si­ble af­ter 25 years. A judge rec­om­mended nei­ther ever be let out.

“We didn’t wake up one morn­ing and de­cide we were go­ing to be some evil mon­sters,” Har­ris told the “Tampa Bay Times.”“We wound up killing him and that was a very bad thing, and it weighed heav­ily on both of us.”

Har­ris is 60 now. His black hair car­ries specks of gray. A scar on his nose, from a wound in­flicted by the vic­tim, is a per­ma­nent re­minder.

Look­ing back, Har­ris sees a hot-headed kid with a surly dis­po­si­tion and lit­tle re­spect for au­thor­ity. He re­mem­bers his fa­ther’s dis­ap­point­ment, and the shame he brought to his fam­ily.

He re­mem­bers his ar­rival at Florida State Pri­son, and the snarling guard dog that greeted him be­hind the ra­zor wire.

“I said a quick prayer,” he said.“‘God, I don’t care how long it takes, bring me out of this a bet­ter man.’”

He en­rolled in sub­stance abuse pro­grams. He earned a high school diploma and learned plumb­ing and print­ing. In the 1980s, he got in­volved in a Catholic pro­gram that served as an in­tro­duc­tion to Chris­tian­ity.

He knew Meagher’s nephew op­posed his re­lease. He re­gret­ted that he had never apol­o­gized.

In 2008, he wrote the man a let­ter. He said he couldn’t imag­ine the pain his crime had caused. He said he was sorry and asked the man not to hate him. He never got a re­ply.

Huff­man was re­leased on pa­role in 2010. Har­ris was con­sid­ered nine times, but al­ways was re­jected.

When he be­came el­i­gi­ble for a new sen­tence, lawyers looked over his record, the progress he had made and his be­hav­ior in pri­son. They said they thought they could get him out.

Sen­tenc­ing pa­per­work lists credit for 15,498 days of in­car­cer­a­tion. Thou­sands of days of gain time dis­solved what re­mained of the new 60-year sen­tence. “Time flies,” he told the judge. Since his re­lease, Har­ris has lived in a group home run by Abe Brown Min­istries, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that helps con­victs tran­si­tion back to so­ci­ety.

He rides a bike to a construction train­ing pro­gram. He goes to church sev­eral times a week. He’s work­ing on get­ting a driver li­cense and a full-time job.

He knows there are peo­ple who be­lieve he doesn’t de­serve a se­cond chance.

“You can’t con­vince peo­ple once they’ve made their mind up,” he said. “What makes me happy isn’t al­ways go­ing to make the next per­son happy.There’s a lot of things you've got to live with.”

At the same time, he knows not ev­ery­one de­serves the same.

“Some peo­ple do things that make me scratch my head,” he said. “Where's the hu­man­ity in you? Where’s the love? I met a lot of guys like that.”

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