JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Senate recently passed a bill with a unanimous vote that would change juvenile sentencing laws in the state of Florida. It gives local families with young loved ones behind bars new found hope.
In the sunshine state, juveniles can be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. HB 7035 calls for judicial hearings and sentencing standards that would vary depending on the nature of a crime.
"We begin our visits crying and we end our visit crying," said Yvonne Hartley-Herring.
Yvonne's son, Jonathan Hartley, was sentenced to life in prison at 16 years old. Hartley was convicted for his involvement in an armed robbery in 2009. At 15 years old, he shot and killed pizza deliverer, 57-year-old Sarah Hotham.
"I'm not saying shut down the prison and let everybody walk free," said Judy Thompson/President Forgotten Majority, Inc. "What I'm saying is that you have a young man here that is capable of growing up and changing, and actually being an asset to society."
Thompson has fought countless battles for teens in similar cases as Jonathan's. Thompson says Wednesday's vote by the Senate moving forward House Bill 7035 is long overdue.
Changing the juvenile sentencing laws has been a struggle among legislatures since 2010. The bill stems from U.S. Supreme Court decisions dealing with life sentences for juveniles.
"The United States Supreme Court decision stated sentencing a juvenile to life is cruel and unusual punishment because they grow up," said Thompson. "One day, we expect for them to understand risk and consequence and all the things their brain isn't capable of handling and processing."
Yvonne says now she can actually see not just imagine the possibility of her son walking out of prison and starting his life over.
"I have hope," she said. "I have faith."
Jonathan is now 20 years old and he was able to get his GED in prison. But his mother says he is currently not able to learn a trade in prison or further his education unless she pays for it because he's serving a life sentence. HB 7035 could change that.
The next step is for the bill to go back to the House for approval then it would be sent to the Governor's desk for his signature.