Editorial: Keep children out of adult prisons

From gainesville.com

Breaking the school-to-prison pipeline is much harder when state attorneys effectively have unchecked power to prosecute children as adults.

More than 98 percent of juvenile cases transferred to adult courts in Florida are “direct filed” at a prosecutor’s sole discretion, without a judge’s oversight or input, according to a 2014 report by Human Rights Watch.

More than 10,000 children have been tried as adults in the state over the past five years, according to Florida Department of Juvenile Justice statistics. Human Rights Watch found most of these cases involved non-violent offenses.

A 1978 state law lets children as young as 14 receive adult sentences without judicial approval or review. Florida is one of just 14 states with a direct file system, and one of just three that don’t allow a judge to review a prosecutor’s decision to file a juvenile case in adult court.

There are good reasons to not try most juveniles as adults, including longer sentences, harsher treatment and a lack of educational services when children are sent to adult prisons. But perhaps the most compelling reason is that doing so is counterproductive.

Juveniles sent to the adult criminal justice system are 34 percent more likely to be arrested again for felonies than youth kept in the juvenile justice system, Human Rights Watch found. Youth that don’t commit crimes again must face the barriers to jobs and schooling put in the path of people with a felony of their records.

A diverse coalition that includes the James Madison Institute, the Project on Accountable Justice at Florida State University and the Southern Poverty Law Center is calling for reforms. The state Senate Criminal Justice subcommittee — which includes Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican whose district includes Alachua County — unanimously passed a measure last month to limit direct file to the most serious, violent offenses.

The common-sense legislation, SB 314, would allow a judge to review a prosecutor’s decision to direct file, require a hearing and court order before a case is transferred, and abolish mandatory adult sentences for children. But a House version, HB 129, was altered to leave prosecutorial discretion unchecked.

The Senate legislation is needed to address geographic and racial disparities in the current system. DOJJ statistics show black youth are more than two times as likely to be charged as adults as their white counterparts.

Putting the power to transfer cases solely in prosecutors’ hands has meant justice varies among Florida’s 20 state attorneys. Eighth Judicial Circuit State Attorney Bill Cervone appears to have used the direct file power with greater discretion than some of his counterparts. Alachua County has a 3 percent rate of adult transfer for felony charges as compared to a statewide average of 6.6 percent.

The eighth circuit has also defied the statewide trend in racial disparities, transferring a smaller proportion of black children to adult court as compared to the number arrested. But in a more worrisome statistic, 89 percent of the children tried as adults last year in Alachua County were charged with nonviolent offenses.

Eighth Circuit Public Defender Stacy Scott said her review of those cases found many involved defendants close to 18 years old and factors such as firearms being stolen. Yet as Scott notes, the election of another prosecutor could lead to a less sensible approach to juvenile cases.

Florida’s direct-file system is a relic in need of reform. Prosecuting children as adults for mainly non-violent offenses only hurts public safety by making it more likely they grow up to be hardened criminals.

If Florida wants to break the school-to-prison pipeline, fixing the direct file system is an important step in that effort.

Editorial: Limit discretion on filing adult charges against juveniles

From the Tampa Bay Times

Embracing a practice called direct filing, prosecutors can file adult criminal charges on children as young as 14 without the consent of a judge. This gives prosecutors too much leeway and exposes youths to the adult criminal justice system before they are fully able to navigate it.

Prosecutors in Florida are charging juveniles as adults far more often than they should. Embracing a practice called direct filing, prosecutors can file adult criminal charges on children as young as 14 without the consent of a judge. This gives prosecutors too much leeway and exposes youths to the adult criminal justice system before they are fully able to navigate it. The Legislature should reset the standards for prosecutorial discretion in this area and establish a middle ground that both adequately punishes juveniles and seeks to rehabilitate them.

The Tampa Bay Times’ Anna Phillips reported this week that the number of juveniles facing adult-level charges in Hillsborough County rose from 101 in 2013-14 to 124 the next fiscal year. The total number in Hillsborough is higher than in more heavily populated areas in Florida such as Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Criminal justice experts in Hillsborough say a spate of gun violence is likely responsible for the uptick.

Supporters of a movement to ensure that juveniles are not introduced into the adult criminal justice system too soon say that the spike in juveniles facing adult charges is due in part to prosecutors’ ability to bypass judges and directly file adult charges against young offenders. State law allows juveniles 14 and older to be charged as an adult through direct filing by prosecutors, an indictment by a grand jury or a judicial waiver. Critics of direct filing correctly assert that abusing the practice can lead to overcharging or be used as a threat to make juvenile offenders accept plea deals. Both situations could be avoided if juveniles had access to a judge before they were charged.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena, HB 129, and a similar bill in the Senate would restrict prosecutors’ ability to directly charge juveniles as adults. The bill would replace the current system with a two-tiered approach based on a juvenile’s age and offense. In the first tier, for example, the state attorney could direct file a juvenile who is 16 to 17 years old and accused of committing one of 17 specific offenses, including murder, manslaughter and armed robbery. Youths between 14 and 15 could be direct filed only if they stood accused of a shorter list of offenses.

Predictably, prosecutors do not want to cede any ground on their direct filing authority. While most of them likely use at least some discretion before charging juveniles as adults, there are exceptions, demonstrating the need for judicial involvement in the earliest stages of a criminal case. At risk is the potential to saddle juveniles with adult charges that, even if they are found not guilty, create an adult arrest record that could impact their ability to obtain employment, housing, loans and more.

Without question, some criminal charges against juveniles should be heard in adult court. But even in the face of the most egregious charges, juveniles are not adults. Their cognitive and emotional development puts them at a disadvantage in the adult criminal justice system. Judges can help to bridge the divide.

The direct file bill before the Legislature presents a reasonable compromise that would neither handcuff prosecutors nor leave judges powerless to intervene. The purpose of imposing juvenile sanctions is to effectively punish young offenders while giving them an opportunity for rehabilitation. Direct filing adult charges — even employed by careful prosecutors — too often robs juveniles of a second chance.

Direct-File Reform Bill Vote

The FL Senate Criminal Justice Committee heard the direct-file reform bill SB314 Monday, November 2, 2015. The bill was voted on favorably with a 5 to 0 vote!

There was a lively discussion on the issue. Representative Katie Edwards (who filed the comparable direct-file house bill) presented the bill to the senate committee and answered a number of questions. Major shout-outs to Deb Brodsky (FSU’s Project on Accountable Justice), Sal Nuzzo (James Madison Institute), and Nancy Daniels (FL Public Defenders Association) for testifying on behalf of the bill.

Rep. Edwards pointed out to the committee that there are rampant discrepancies among districts in trying children as adults because of the discretion of prosecutors across the state. The importance of uniformity among the state is important to support fairness in our justice system. The bill is offering bright line parameters for prosecutors on which offenses would be charged as adult felonies.  Tania Galloni (SPLC) reminded the committee that the super predator myth greatly contributed to the creation of the current policy.  Deb stated that the juvenile justice system is uniquely qualified to deal with and care for children who are charged with offenses. Sal pointed out that the majority of kids direct-filed are for non-violent offenses, and there is much data to support the coalition’s claims in support of these bills. Nancy Daniels stated that if the bill would pass it would be a significant step forward towards eventually eliminating direct-file for children all together in our state.

Buddy Jacobs (lobbyist for FL State Attorneys) was the only person to testify in opposition. Senator Bradley expressed interest in getting more data in order to effectively develop our state’s policies on “the right side of things.” Sen. Gibson pointed out that “our young people are not just figures, they are human beings, and we have an opportunity to save them.”

Other groups waived in support of the bill today, including:

Bridges of America
Children’s Campaign
Conference of Catholic Bishops
FL Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys
Florida Children’s First
Florida PTA
Human Rights Watch
PACE Center for Girls

-Eileen Espinal, MPA, MSCJ
Community Advocate | Southern Poverty Law Center