Debate Rages Over Sentencing of Juvenile Offenders

Lionel Tate signed an agreement this weekend that will shortly set him free from prison where he had been facing life for murdering six-year-old Tiffany Eunick.

South Florida Sen. Steven Geller says the overturning of Tate’s conviction and reduction of his sentence show Florida’s tough juvenile laws are out of whack.

“We've got to stop treating them as short adults,” Sen. Geller explains.

Geller's bill would let children 15 and under who commit crimes that could draw a death sentence or life in prison be eligible for parole after seven years if it's their first offense, but Florida's crime rate is at a 30-year low, and prosecutors say it doesn't make sense to mess with a judicial system they believe is working

Willie Meggs is President of Florida’s Prosecuting Attorney's Association. He says Lionel Tate had a chance to avoid a life sentence when he was originally offered a plea deal, and it's wrong to use him as the poster child for a system gone awry.

“What happened there in my opinion should have no bearing at all in any way, shape or form about what we do with juvenile crime,” Meggs says.

Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist agrees just because Tate won't have to serve his original life sentence, it doesn't mean the law should be thrown out for all juvenile offenders.

“I think you have to look at them on a case-by-case basis and I think painting any of these with a broad brush would be inaccurate. Whenever you're looking at individual cases you should look at them as individual cases,” Crist says.

But while Lionel Tate may have grabbed the headlines, the fact is hundreds of other kids remain behind bars serving sentences many believe are just too long.

Over the past decade, Florida has prosecuted more juveniles in the adult criminal system than any other state in the nation.