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Sunday, 5 December 2010

Clemency for Kenneth Young

by Matt Kelley
Petition Clemency for Kenneth Young http://chn.ge/gKev9U

How has Florida responded to the U.S. Supreme Court’s May ruling that juvenile life without parole sentences are unconstitutional in non-murder cases? By doing virtually nothing.

Florida has been ground zero for this issue, with 116 of the country’s 181 juveniles serving life for non-murder crimes. Only a few of these cases have made it back into court since the high court’s ruling, and many of those defendants limped away with sentences that seem identical to life: 92 years, 90 years, 50 years.

And one of the state’s most prominent defendants convicted as a juvenile, Kenneth Young, is scheduled to come before the state clemency board next week, and he expects to be sent away empty-handed. I first wrote about Young in 2009, when PBS’ Religion and Ethics Newsweekly profiled his case. Young was sent to prison for life without the chance of parole for a crime he committed when he was 14. His crime: he helped a 25-year-old drug dealer, who his mother owed thousands of dollars for crack, commit a series of armed robberies. The dealer paid him for his help: $50 cash, a pair of Air Jordans and a six-pack of Heineken. Hardly someone with no chance to be a productive member of society.

Since Young’s conviction, the judge who sentenced him has explained that he didn’t know at the time what the sentence meant. “It was not my intent at the time of his sentencing that Mr. Young never be considered for release. So I support Mr. Young’s bid for consideration for clemency,” the judge wrote to the clemency board. Even one of the victim’s in the case called Young her “hero” for stopping the dealer from assaulting her during the robbery.

News outlets are reporting that the clemency board — which includes Crist and three cabinet members — will deny Young’s petition for clemency next week. But there’s still time to make our voices heard. Urge the board to grant Kenneth Young clemency today.

This issue is likely to come before the state legislature next year, with lawmakers already discussing the possibility of life sentences with a chance at parole after 25 years. That would at least be a step in the right direction, but any law should retroactively address the 116 people sentenced to life without parole as boys and girls, rather than forcing them to petition courts for relief or to rely on the politicized clemency process.

Some of these youths committed terrible violent crimes, and it is clear that some period of incarceration was necessary in many of them. But to send a teenager away for life without a chance at rehabilitation or growth is a mistake and a crime in itself. Even the most violent 14-year-old can change. The brain is still developing in our teenage years, and so many of these defendants have histories of abuse and neglect. With opportunities for education and rehabilitation, most — if not all — of these young people should have another chance at life.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in Graham v. Flolrida that states must provide “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”

It’s time for Florida to listen up.

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