Howard v. Coonrod

Juvenile Law Center, with co-counsel Holland & Knight LLP, filed a class action lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida on behalf of over 100 individuals incarcerated in Florida who were sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole for crimes committed when they were under the age of 18, but who are destined to die in prison because of the unconstitutional rules, policies, and practices of the Florida parole system.

In response to the Supreme Court’s decisions in Miller v. Alabama and Graham v. Florida, Florida adopted new legislation in 2014 which, among other protections, requires the trial court to hold an individualized sentencing hearing that considers the defendant’s youth before imposing a life sentence, and which provides for a subsequent review of the sentence after 15 or 25 years, at which point the judge must consider the defendant’s maturation and rehabilitation.

However, while youth receiving the harsher sentence of life without parole (“LWOP”) receive the constitutionally required meaningful opportunity for release provided by this statute, the state has refused to provide the benefits of the law to youth sentenced to life with parole (“LWP”). Instead, these individuals may only be released from prison in accordance with the extremely limited process set forth in Florida’s parole statutes, which does not require consideration of their maturity or rehabilitation. There is no justification for this stark difference in treatment, as the primary difference between those who received LWOP sentences and those who received LWP sentences is simply when the crime was committed – before or after May 25, 1994, when parole was fully abolished in Florida.

Our lawsuit alleges that these rules, policies, and practices violate the plaintiffs’ rights to equal protection and due process under the Fourteenth Amendment, their right to be free from cruel and unusual punishments under the Eighth Amendment, and their right to a judicial resentencing under the Sixth Amendment. 

In March 2022, the District Court granted Plaintiffs’ motion for class certification, ensuring that the case and any relief secured going forward will be on behalf and for the benefit of the over 250 individuals currently serving life with parole sentences for offenses they committed when they were under 18 years of age.

In September 2022, Plaintiffs moved for summary judgement based on evidence and argument that defendants’ failure to afford class members a meaningful opportunity for release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation violates the Eighth Amendment, and that as a result class members should be entitled to a resentencing hearing in accordance with Florida’s 2014 Juvenile Sentencing Statute. Defendants cross-moved for summary judgment on the grounds that they have not violated the Eighth Amendment.

In February 2023, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida ruled in favor of the Defendants, finding that although the Supreme Court’s holdings in Miller and Montgomery apply to parole policies and procedures as well as sentencing, Florida’s parole procedures are adequate under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause and the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

In July 2023, Juvenile Law Center and Holland & Knight appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, arguing that while the District Court was right in finding that Miller and Graham applied to parole, the overwhelming evidence in the record demonstrates that Florida’s parole system has converted life with parole sentences into de facto and unconstitutional mandatory life without parole.