Slavery is and always has been the motivating factor behind Florida sentencing its citizens to life in prison and where yesterday was about crop holders, today is about shareholders.
In 1866, while the rest of America was trying to modernize their world without the institution of slavery, Florida was passing harsh laws, known as Black codes, to covertly reinstate slavery back into the fabric of their society.
In 1867, a series of Jim Crow Laws were enacted to bring slavery back under the guise of “life imprisonment.” In 1869, the Freedman’s Bureau referred 20 old and destitute negros to the governor’s office as laborers. They were then sent to Chattahoochee prison to serve the rest of their lives.
In 1885, Florida attempted to curtail this evil by amending Article 1, Section 17 of the Florida Constitution under the forbearance of excessive punishment to include language such as “indefinite imprisonment is to be forbidden.”
This draconic practice will erode the foundation of any civilized society. The lack of forgiveness and mercy will ultimately weaken its generational and sociological development. When redemption is not offered, it will be the road less traveled, and a world without redemption is a world without change!”
SLAVERY, THE FACE BENEATH THE MASK OF FLORIDA’S LIFE SENTENCE
In 1866, during Florida’s first post-war state government, the legislature passed harsh discriminatory laws directed against blacks. These so-called Black Codes represented an attempt by former slave owners, including Florida Governor David S. Walker, who had been a slave owner and a Whig who served on both the Florida General Assembly and the Florida State Supreme Court where these prejudicial laws were put in place. The goal was to reinstate the slave market in the Florida system.
The theory of white supremacy would permeate statutory and constitutional law. By 1867, a series of Jim Crow laws that had been enacted would ensure that blacks would be subjugated to a status suggestive of social if not complete, legal and physical bondage.
Three north Florida ex-slave holders (C.H. Dupont, A.J. Peeler, a d M.D. Papy) were appointed to the Interim Committee on Freedman’s Affairs, where they prefaced their report to the General Assembly with a characterization of slavery as a benevolent institution. They defined it as the happiest and best design for a laboring population and desired to preserve as much as possible the good qualities of slavery.
In 1868, the legislature authorized the Commissioner of Public Institutions to lease prisoners at their discretion; ironically, it was also the year that the Florida Department of Corrections was established. In 1869, the Freedman’s Bureau referred 20 elderly and destitute negros to help at the governor’s office, they were moved to Chattahoochee Prison to serve for the rest of their lives. This was a common practice, and it was believed that while the lucky ones were beaten and sent to prison for the rest of their lives, while the unlucky ones were hanged.
In 1870, Governor Reed urged more prisoners to be leased, and many of the blacks going before white southern judges received indefinite sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison, life sentences, or indefinite imprisonment. The white aristocratic society wanted their slaves back and could only do this by manipulating the law.
The supremacy ideology was at risk of being stripped of its identity by the negros becoming free. The life of the upper class was ending as they knew it. They would have to till their ground and spend money on what used to be free labor, and they would have to find a way to keep what they had. They would bring slavery band under the guise of life sentences.
It wasn’t until 1885 that the righteous framers of the Florida Constitution attempt to curtail this egregious wrong by amending three evils:
a) Involuntary servitude/slavery without being duly convicted
b) Indefinite imprisonment
c) No fixed penalties for crimes that could distinguish the difference between felonies and misdemeanors.
Ever since 1885, Florida’s Constitution has banned indefinite imprisonment, and going against our constitution would be unlawful. A point expressed by the Florida District Court, “Certainly…the judicial system itself must follow and obey the law.” Hayes v. States, 6989 So.,2d 377, 378 (Fla. 1 DCA 1977).
As the Honorable Supreme Court Chief Justice Arthur J. England Jr. pointed out in his dictum in Alvarez at 14, “…moreover, if the net effect of a penal statute is to provide an indefinite term of imprisonment, the law is at odds with Article 1, Section 17 of our Florida Constitution.”
The premise of an indefinite life sentence was to unjustly sentence a person to indentured servitude for the rest of his/her life. There is no consideration for rehabilitation or availability to reenter society for a person who has clearly shown change, growth, and development to the degree that he/she would be an asset to any community within our society.
A SOLUTION TO FLORIDA’S LIFE SENTENCES
ARTICLE 1 SECTION 17 OF THE FLORIDA CONSTITUTION
Excessive fines, cruel and unusual punishment, attainder, forfeiture of state, indefinite imprisonment, and unreasonable detention of witnesses are forbidden.
The Supreme Court in Ratliff v. State, 914 So. 2d 938
(Fla. 2005), found that: “Although no person can predict the maximum length of time which can be served by a prisoner under a sentence of life, this in itself does not render a Life sentence impermissibly indefinite.”
The Ratliff Court relied on Alvarez v. State, 358 So.2d 10, 12 (Fla.1978), and ruled that “Although in Alverez we addressed under Article 1, Section 17 of the Florida Constitution a sentence that involved a term of years and not a life sentence, the reasoning underlying our decision in Alvarez is equally applicable to a life sentence.”
It further explains that just because someone will die in prison does not make a sentence indefinite this is, of course, negating the fact that life expectancy is not what is forbidden.
“EXCESSIVE PUNISHMENT” + “INDEFINITE IMPRISONMENT" + “ARE FORBIDDEN” = ONLY ONE THING, which is Life sentencing is forbidden.
Under Ratliff’s rationale, "Indefinite Imprisonment" is to be interpreted as "Vague Imprisonment" (or more precisely "undefined imprisonment"), rather than "being placed in prison for an indefinite/infinite amount of time." This is a point that misses the mark and fails to answer whether Florida’s Life sentences are constitutionally illegal.
Article 1, Section 17 of the Florida Constitution addressed "Excessive Punishment", and the word excessive means "too much, or too great an amount." The word "Excessive" expresses a level of time or measure, but in no way does it express "vagueness." Either vagueness exists or does not exist. And to top this point off, by law, there can be no vagueness or ambiguity of any amount, so "excessive vagueness" holds no weight.
On another note, the word "indefinite" means vague or for an unlimited period. The combination of excessive and indefinite is conjunctive in nature and clears up any misunderstanding that would have existed had indefinite stood alone without excessive.
It is simple logic, when one combines "Excessive Punishment" with the words "Indefinite Imprisonment is Forbidden", it can be construed as having only one meaning, “Being placed in prison for an indefinite amount of time is forbidden.”
Courts have also determined that a life sentence is not an indefinite sentence, but an indeterminate sentence. These two sentences are distinct in their differences: 1.) An indeterminate sentence deals with the vagueness or inability to determine, whileAn indefinite sentence deals with an unlimited, or infinite amount of time.
In Carnley v. Cochran, 118 So.2d 629, 632-633 (Fla. 1960), the Supreme Court clearly explains that an indeterminate sentence has 2 prongs. Without one of these prongs, it would no longer be an indeterminate sentence:
Prong One is deterrence from crime while prong two is “…rehabilitation to the point of offering him every chance to re-establish himself as a useful member of society.”
As Florida’s Life Sentence only meets the first prong, life has no such offer, and thus it is not an indeterminate sentence, but an illegal indefinite sentence.
The 4,000 plus lifers who are still under the old parole system from over 40 years ago do not even qualify for an indeterminate sentence as the courts have acknowledged that Florida’s parole system does not offer any true, meaningful opportunity of release.
The fact remains that no matter what the defendant’s rehabilitative intentions establish, his release date under a life sentence will never move from its non-existing date of 99/98/9999.
Please note: Upon Society-First publishing of this on their website at society-first.com, the FDC changed the release date on the inmate's gain timesheet to read, Not Applicable, rather than 99/98/9999 as it had previously read…which further validates this claim.
In Carnley, the Supreme Court explained that an indeterminate sentence is not subject to the infirmity of indefiniteness, thus the Carnley Court is at odds with the Ratliff Court as life is subject to the infirmity of indefiniteness.
In this instance, we are dealing with a black and white situation where no gray area exists. Simply put, if it does not meet both prongs, then it is not an indeterminate sentence, but rather a determinate sentence that is constitutionally forbidden.
Closing our eyes to such clear unconstitutionality is to void the constitution’s power to govern our laws, and in doing so, it manipulates not only the letter of the law but the spirit of the law as well.
STATE OF FLORIDA’S ADMISSION
In Robert v. State, 821 So.2d 1144 (Fla. 3rdDCA 2001) the court found, “…to retain jurisdiction over one-third of his life sentence because a life sentence is indefinite, making one-third indeterminable. The Appellee State of Florida concedes to this argument” … and we agree.
In Kosek v. State, 448 So.2D 57,58 (Fla.5th DCA 1984) the court also found, “Six one-hundred-year sentences are definite. The same cannot be said about a life sentence.”
Florida Administrative Code 33-608, 402(1)(a)5 states, “if serving a sentence with no definite term, that is a life sentence.”
Because Florida statutes are governed by legislative intent and administrative codes are governed by those statutes, it is abundantly clear that the intent was indefinite legislative imprisonment, when they established the life sentence.
COURTS HAVE THE POWER TO STRIKE
The courts have the power and duty to strike down the action of the legislature if provisions of an act violate some expressed or implied constitutional inhibitions (Halley v. Adams, 238 So2d 401 Fla.1970). It is not the constitution’s duty to uphold legislative intent, but legislative intent to uphold the constitution.
Once again, as Honorable Supreme Court Chief Justice Arthur J. England Jr. stated, “…moreover if the net effect of a penal statute is to provide an indefinite term of imprisonment, the law is ad odds with Article 1, Section 17 of the Florida Constitution.
It is indisputable that the law is at odds with Article 1, Section 17 of the Florida Constitution, as when one combine’s excessive punishment with indefinite imprisonment and are forbidden, the only interpretation that can be made is being placed in prison for the rest of your natural life is forbidden.
Please, feel free to contact us concerning what we are doing to abolish life sentences, meaning death, as we believe that society will benefit more from a system that is restorative rather than strictly punitive. We are not only pointing out the problem but offering a solution.
Source: Silverstein, J. (2019). New York Times Magazine
https://pulitzercenter.org/sites/default/files/full_issue_of_ the_1619_project.pdf (accessed December 4, 2020).