Are Long Sentences Cruel in Violation of the Constitution

Most Bradenton criminal defense attorneys know that in Florida, there are some inconsistencies when it comes to sentencing — even from county to county. To be sure, certain counties in Florida are more known for their outrageous sentencing practices than others. However, the differences from county to county actually raise a thought-provoking question: Can long sentences, even if they are legal, be “cruel” in violation of the U.S. Constitution?

Many people know and understand that “cruel and unusual punishment” is banned by the 8th Amendment. But can a person’s sentence be so outrageous that it can actually be considered cruel? The case of Alfonso-Roche v. State tackles the issue.

What Happened in Alfonso-Roche v. State?

Alfonso-Roche was ultimately convicted of stealing an automobile, a boat and the motors that were attached. He had no priors, as this was his first offense. He rejected the state’s offer for a three-year prison plea deal, but he lost at trial. More specifically, Alfonso-Roche was found guilty of grand theft auto, which in Florida is punishable by up to five years in prison and grand theft first degree, which is punishable by up to 30 years in prison. That’s a total of 35 years that he was facing — even as a first-time offender.

Based on his scoresheet, as a first offender, Alfonso-Roche (who was 55 years old at the time) could have gotten a minimum of 23.7 months of prison time; however, he was actually sentenced to 35 years. Essentially, that is likely a life sentence for him. Yet, in a different case, the Florida Supreme Court found it “cruel” to give a 15-year-old offender 58 years in prison because that would have been a life sentence for him since he wouldn’t be released until he was 73 years of age.

So, shouldn’t the same hold true for Alfonso-Roche? In a concurring opinion, Judge Gross noted that the 35-year sentence, although legal, was “suspect.” The majority opinion asked the Supreme Court of Florida to answer the following: “Does a sentence within the statutory maximum under the Criminal Punishment Code violate either the Due Process Clause or Eighth Amendment when it is significantly greater than the lowest permissible sentence on the defendant’s scoresheet or the offered plea and grossly disproportionate to the median sentence imposed for similar crimes within the jurisdiction?”

A Few Statistics

Of the 84 defendants that scored approximately the same as Alfonso-Roche during the 2011/2012 fiscal year, the median sentence for those defendants in the 19th Judicial Circuit was 36 months. Yet, Alfonso-Roche got 35 years (420 months). Moreover, 117 defendants who actually scored higher than Alfonso-Roche did not go to prison at all.

As of yet, we do not know if Florida’s Supreme Court will answer the question posed by the majority opinion in this case. Still, it is clear that there can be great disparity between sentences throughout Florida and the rest of the country.

That being the case, it is important for individuals who are facing criminal charges to seek legal guidance from skilled criminal defense lawyers who can ensure that their rights are protected. Contact the Fowler Law Group by calling (941) 900-3100 as soon as possible.

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