- Associated Press - Friday, December 22, 2017

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) - When she was 15, Chantay Clark shot and killed a woman while trying to steal a car. Later, she took a man’s truck at gunpoint, forcing him to take cover in a culvert.

Circuit Judge Michael Andrews knew all about her.

On Nov. 3, she stood shackled in his Pinellas courtroom, having served 25 years of a life sentence. Now entering middle age, she was the beneficiary of court rulings that said juveniles who commit serious crimes deserve a meaningful chance of release.

The state said she still deserved life. The defense suggested 40 years.

“I doubt that I’m going to make anybody happy,” Andrews said. “I do not wish to leave Miss Clark in a worse position than she was in. At the same time, I wish to punish her for what it is that she did.”

The judge gave her 50 years.

Three days later, Clark, 40, walked out of the Pinellas County jail a free woman.

What accounted for her abrupt release? Gain time.

The concept of shaving time off an inmate’s sentence was all but eliminated in Florida in the 1990s. But now the old rules are resurfacing for those condemned long ago for crimes they committed as juveniles.

For many former lifers, it means they’ve done their time.

They are people like Sylvester Harris, who was 15 days from his 18th birthday in 1975 when he took part in a robbery that left a man dead. He was resentenced to 60 years. But with credit for time served, plus more than 20 years worth of gain time, he was released in September.

They are people like Mark Befort, whom a jury convicted of the 1979 robbery and murder of an elderly Plant City man, a crime that occurred when he was 17. His sentence was reduced to 70 years. With gain time, he was released in July.

Experts on juvenile resentencing say it’s difficult to pinpoint how many cases might be affected. In each, there is technically no promise that the defendant will get out.

But for those who have served 25 years, the chances are good.

“I think in those cases where the victims are opposed to any type of relief, it’s why they haven’t been resolved yet,” said Roseanne Eckert, the coordinating attorney for the Juvenile Resentencing and Review Project at the Florida International University College of Law. “It will take several years.”

For some victims and their families, the changes mean renewed pain.

A week after Clark’s release, a letter arrived in Judge Andrews‘ chambers. It came from the uncle of Abigail Barnes, who was 29 years old when Clark ended her life in 1992.

The uncle, who had argued against a new punishment, speculated that the judge didn’t realize how gain time would factor into Clark’s sentence. He said the judge should not have considered anything but a new life sentence.

“For the murder of Abigail Barnes, Chantay Clark deserves the harshest penalty available,” Leo Barnes wrote. “For our family .?.?. Chantay Clark’s release from prison after serving only 25 years is the worst possible result.”

A relic of Florida’s criminal justice past, gain time was once applied liberally to the sentences of just about everyone who entered the prison system.

Inmates could cut time off their sentences simply by being in prison. They could cut even more if they worked and behaved themselves while locked up.

Gain time helped relieve overcrowding. But a backlash came when the public learned some prisoners were serving as little as a third of their punishments.

In 1995, the state Legislature passed a law requiring new inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. About the same time, the state did away with parole. From then on, those sentenced to life would be destined to die in prison.

Neither measure was made retroactive, which meant the old rules still applied to people already in prison.

Two decades later, attitudes about criminal justice have changed, especially for young offenders. Studies of teenage brains support the claim that kids are less capable of appreciating choices and understanding consequences. They’re also more amenable to change.

That was part of the basis for a pair of U.S. Supreme Court rulings, Graham vs. Florida and Miller vs. Alabama, which deemed it unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life or similarly long sentences.

“From a public policy perspective, the Supreme Court decision is just going back to what we knew,” Eckert said. “We’ve always known that children were different.”

The rulings opened the door to new sentences for hundreds of Florida prisoners.

Sylvester Harris was accumulating gain time from the day he entered prison in 1976. But with a life sentence, it never mattered.

He was 15 days from his 18th birthday in 1975 when he and his adult girlfriend, Roberta Huffman, choked and stabbed a man, Bruce Meagher, during a botched robbery.

He and Huffman both got life sentences, with parole possible after 25 years. A judge recommended neither ever be let out.

“We didn’t wake up one morning and decide we were going to be some evil monsters,” Harris told the Tampa Bay Times. “We wound up killing him and that was a very bad thing, and it weighed heavily on both of us.”

Harris is 60 now. His black hair carries specks of gray. A scar on his nose, from a wound inflicted by the victim, is a permanent reminder.

Looking back, Harris sees a hot-headed kid with a surly disposition and little respect for authority. He remembers his father’s disappointment, and the shame he brought to his family.

He remembers his arrival at Florida State Prison, and the snarling guard dog that greeted him behind the razor wire.

“I said a quick prayer,” he said. “?’God, I don’t care how long it takes, bring me out of this a better man.’?”

He enrolled in substance abuse programs. He earned a high school diploma and learned plumbing and printing. In the 1980s, he got involved in a Catholic program that served as an introduction to Christianity.

He knew Meagher’s nephew opposed his release. He regretted that he had never apologized.

In 2008, he wrote the man a letter. He said he couldn’t imagine the pain his crime had caused. He said he was sorry and asked the man not to hate him. He never got a reply.

Huffman was released on parole in 2010. Harris was considered nine times, but always was rejected.

When he became eligible for a new sentence, lawyers looked over his record, the progress he had made and his behavior in prison. They said they thought they could get him out.

Sentencing paperwork lists credit for 15,498 days of incarceration. Thousands of days of gain time dissolved what remained of the new 60-year sentence.

“Time flies,” he told the judge.

Since his release, Harris has lived in a group home run by Abe Brown Ministries, an organization that helps convicts transition back to society.

He rides a bike to a construction training program. He goes to church several times a week. He’s working on getting a driver’s license and a full-time job.

He knows there are people who believe he doesn’t deserve a second chance.

“You can’t convince people once they’ve made their mind up,” he said. “What makes me happy isn’t always going to make the next person happy. There’s a lot of things you’ve got to live with.”

At the same time, he knows not everyone deserves the same.

“Some people do things that make me scratch my head,” he said. “Where’s the humanity in you? Where’s the love? I met a lot of guys like that.”

The state wanted Chantay Clark to stay locked up.

Bruce Bartlett, the chief assistant state attorney for Pinellas and Pasco counties, noted the brutality of her crimes and the fear she instilled in her victims.

“I guess her brain just hasn’t really matured yet, huh?” he said, facetiously.

Before her resentencing, Bartlett spoke with the Commission on Offender Review - the state entity that regulates parole-eligible inmates - and tried to have Clark’s parole release date moved up.

An earlier date might be in line with the Supreme Court’s holding that juveniles deserve a “meaningful opportunity” for release. The parole system would also ensure that if Clark misbehaved, she could return to prison, he said.

“I basically told them, if you don’t reduce it, she’s going to get resentenced,” Bartlett said. “This way, we can forego a resentencing.”

Clark had a presumptive release date in 2043 - about 50 years after she entered prison. Her next parole interview date was in 2024.

It wasn’t enough. She was resentenced and released last month.

Judge Andrews did not respond to a call for comment about Clark’s case. Nor did Stacey Schroeder, her defense attorney.

Stephen Thompson, a spokesman for the 6th Judicial Circuit, said in a statement that judges must base sentencing decisions on the law, not gain time, which is a function of the Department of Corrections.

It is unclear where Clark is now. An address on file with the Department of Corrections lists a post office box in St. Petersburg.

Her grandmother, Alma Brantley, told the Times she wasn’t sure Clark would want to talk about her case, but said she would pass along a reporter’s message.

Subsequent calls went unanswered.

While judges can’t consider gain time as they fashion new sentences, it does get discussed in court.

As Mark Befort stood before Senior Judge Wayne Timmerman in July, a prosecutor explained that a heavier sentence would only postpone his release. With 80 years, he’d be out in 2019. With 90 years, he’d be out in 2024.

In the midst of a discussion over his future, Befort wanted to speak. But he couldn’t.

Now five months into a 15-year probation sentence, he too lives at Abe Brown Ministries. He got a job working construction. He has always maintained he was innocent of the crime for which a jury found him guilty. He knows people still judge him.

“How can you judge a man when you know nothing about him?” he said. “When is it over? When does it end?”

Archie Evans thinks Befort has done his time. He’s the grand-nephew of James Shaver, the man who was killed 38 years ago.

“He’s not going to do so much as jaywalk now,” Evans said. “I’m willing to forgive and forget.”

___

Information from: Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.), http://www.tampabay.com.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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