Jacksonville youth in legal trouble have a decision to make: Agree to time in a juvenile facility or roll the dice as an adult
By Topher Sanders, [email protected]
State Attorney Angela Corey’s office gave 17-year-old Monica Jones a stark choice: nine months in a high-risk juvenile facility or be charged as an adult and risk decades in prison.
Monica, who had never been in legal trouble before, was arrested in December 2012 in Jacksonville for armed robbery with a firearm and resisting an officer without violence. She maintains she never knew anything about the failed robbery attempt for which she was arrested.
Though school officials, pastors and a coach spoke up for the girl with a college scholarship already in hand, though state officials assessed her as low risk to re-offend, Monica and her mom felt they had little choice.
“I felt pressured into it; I was out of options,” said Belinda Jones, Monica’s mother. “I didn’t want my daughter adjudicated as an adult. I felt like the prosecution, that’s all they gave me. They just gave me, ‘Hey, we can ruin her life forever, or you can take this program.’ ”
If Monica had been arrested in a different Florida city, that’s a choice she might not have faced.
The 4th Judicial Circuit, which consists of Duval, Clay and Nassau counties, dramatically leads the state in the number of juveniles incarcerated through a method called direct commitment.
That’s usually a plea deal reached between a juvenile’s lawyer and the prosecutor. When juveniles agree to plea deals, they are often incarcerated without the chance to hear the evidence against them, examine police work or interview witnesses.
The Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), which is charged with increasing public safety and reducing juvenile delinquency, is typically excluded from the process and is not given the chance to make a thorough evaluation of the child’s background and needs for the court’s consideration.
And hundreds of those deals in the Jacksonville area are reached in the manner Monica’s was, with the juvenile threatened with adult charges if they don’t take the deal, according to 4th Judicial Circuit’s Public Defender’s Office.
There were 1,475 direct commitments in the Jacksonville area between 2009 and 2013.
During that same period, there were just 34 in Miami — the state’s most populous judicial district, with twice as many youth as the Jacksonville area. The Broward County judicial circuit came closest to having as many direct commitments as the Jacksonville area in that time period but still had 32 percent fewer than Jacksonville.
In Broward, just 9 percent of its direct commitments since 2009 stem from misdemeanors, while in Jacksonville that figure is 29 percent, according to DJJ data requested by the Times-Union. The data does not indicate any prior criminal history that could have affected how prosecutors dealt with the youths.
More juveniles who DJJ deems to be low risk to re-offend have been committed from the Jacksonville area in the past five years than from the Miami, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach areas combined.
Rob Mason, the head of the Jacksonville area’s public defender’s juvenile division, said his office handled about 75 percent of the 1,475 direct commitments in the Jacksonville circuit since 2009. And about four out of five of those juveniles — more than 800 — in those cases were first threatened with being charged as an adult, Mason said.
The juveniles took deals that sentenced them to months or even years in costly facilities throughout Florida to avoid potentially lengthy sentences to adult prisons.
“It’s not a good practice,” said Jacksonville area Public Defender Matt Shirk. “I don’t like it; Rob doesn’t like it; our lawyers don’t like it. It’s not fair.”
Shirk said the laws on charging juveniles as adults need to be changed to allow for reviews of those decisions.
“You change the law, then you don’t have those problems,” he said. “You don’t have those threats.”
The Times-Union asked Corey and her office for an interview related to this story in November, then again in December. Two weeks ago, emails were sent and phone calls were made to Corey’s office again requesting an interview.
At 4:30 p.m. Friday, Corey’s office sent the Times-Union a written statement.
“Juvenile cases and the negotiations that occur in juvenile cases are handled no differently than how an adult case moves through the judicial system,” the statement said.
The statement said once her office determines a charge is provable, the defense is given the opportunity to present mitigation and negotiate. In violent crimes, cases are reviewed for adult charges.
“While that process is underway, prosecutors routinely ask defense counsel for offers in their cases,” the statement said. “That is a standard part of criminal case resolution.”
Critics of this practice by Corey’s office said it doesn’t improve community safety, shows a lack of respect for juveniles’ constitutional rights and compels some juveniles into facilities who shouldn’t be there.
Some juveniles have been threatened with adult court while being offered plea deals, only to have Corey’s office later drop the case, attorneys said. In those instances the juvenile was one decision away from accepting a stain on their record, most times a felony, for something the state ultimately decided not to pursue.
Bryan Gowdy is a Jacksonville appellate lawyer who in 2009 successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that juveniles should not be subjected to life without parole for crimes less than murder.
He said that juveniles who are accused of breaking the law must face consequences for their crimes but that Corey’s office’s approach tramples their constitutional rights to determine whether they actually broke the law.
The merits of the case, Gowdy said, should determine whether a juvenile’s case is filed in adult court — not the juvenile’s decision on whether or not to exercise their right to a trial.
“They’re using their power to charge juveniles for serious crimes in adult court to extract guilty pleas for less serious crimes that should be handled in juvenile court,” he said.
He called the practice an improper use of a prosecutor’s power, one tantamount to the state holding a hammer over the juvenile’s head.
“Everybody in the system should respect our constitution and the rights that it gives us, and when the state puts such a huge hammer over an individual — in this case a child — for exercising that right, then it shows that the state is not fully respecting those rights,” said Gowdy.
The practice is “bush league,” said Nah-Deh Simmons, a local attorney who said he has represented about a half-dozen juveniles who have been threatened in this way.
“They’re forcing the kid into a corner of going to a commitment or being sent to adult court,” he said, “and most of the kids are scared of going to the county jail or adult court, so before they do anything they’ll actually jump and enter a plea.”
None of Simmons’ clients could be reached or were willing to speak for this story. In fact, out of more than two dozen private attorneys contacted by the Times-Union for this story, only a few were willing to be quoted about the issue.
Two lawyers declined comment, citing concerns that Corey’s office would retaliate against them or their clients.
Typically when a juvenile is incarcerated and DJJ has a chance to make a recommendation, the department evaluates what is causing the juvenile to break the law and looks at the child’s social history and treatment needs. It also provides a plan for treatment.
Negotiated pleas that skip or ignore DJJ’s individualized assessment undermine the credibility of the juvenile justice system, said Shay Bilchik, founder and director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University.
“As a parent, as a member of a community and as a juvenile justice professional, I just think that’s wrong,” said Bilchik, who is a former Miami-Dade prosecutor.
Incarcerating low-risk children alongside more hardened youth is detrimental for the low-risk juveniles and for the communities they return to, said Mason, the head of the Jacksonville area’s public defender’s juvenile division.
“The whole point is you keep those children away from the high-risk children because you don’t want them rubbing elbows with other children that have committed many, many offenses and that start telling them how to hot-wire a car, they start telling them the best way to break into a house,” Mason said. “It just makes them more likely to recidivate and commit crimes.”
Chris Carr, DJJ’s former chief probation officer for the 4th Circuit, says that commitment is the wrong strategy for dealing with low-risk juveniles, who can pick up bad habits, develop callous attitudes and learn criminal strategies during their incarceration.
The department uses the Positive Achievement Change Tool (PACT) to determine a juvenile’s risk to re-offend, scoring juveniles as either low risk, moderate risk, moderate-high risk or high risk. The process is similar to that used by the insurance industry to determine risk, and the tool used by DJJ has been independently and scientifically validated three times, a DJJ official said.
DJJ’s recommendations on what should happen with young people accused of crimes mean little to Corey’s office, said Carr, who retired from her position in September.
“Angela Corey’s office and Brooke Brady, her juvenile division chief, totally do not accept the premise of the intent of the recommendations of the Department of Juvenile Justice,” she said.
Brady didn’t return a call for comment.
Monica Jones’ personality is bubbly. She smiles a lot and likes to hug people. But during her time at Martin Girls Academy, the commitment facility she was sent to, she started to feel the impact of being around the other youth there.
She started to “lose myself,” she said.
“It’s hard to better yourself there,” Monica said. “I was starting to have a bad attitude … didn’t want to be around nobody. Because every time I would be around them they [were] talking about negative stuff.”
But she had to spend time with the other girls or she wouldn’t receive points toward going home.
She developed relationships with the girls, but it was clear to her that “they don’t want the same things that I want in life,” she said.
Before she was given the choice to accept a plea deal or be charged as an adult, many in the community spoke up to say that Monica wasn’t a danger to the Jacksonville community.
One of her teachers said she was a leader and a focused student. Pastors praised her academics and called her kind and respectful. Her high school principal said she was a model for younger students. She excelled at running track and playing soccer, and she had a scholarship offer to a university in Rhode Island.
Records show DJJ evaluation tools continually found Monica to be a low risk to re-offend.
But in the judicial system, the focus was on what happened the night of Monica’s arrest.
On Dec. 15, 2012, Monica got into a car with three other teens and went for a ride to a Northside convenience store. As Monica left the store with the cookies, chips and soda that she bought, two of the other teens went into the store and attempted to rob it at gunpoint, according to police reports.
Monica said she and another teen sat in the car. After the failed robbery, the other two teens returned to the car and they all drove off, she said. Monica was in a passenger seat. Police were led on a chase that ended with all four teens running from the vehicle, the report said. Monica said she ran because she feared for her safety; she was found under a car nearby.
Monica consistently said she knew nothing about the robbery and played no part in it, but police and Corey’s office didn’t believe her. Monica said police told her they thought she was a lookout. She was arrested and charged with armed robbery with a firearm and resisting an officer without violence.
She spent the next 73 days in detention as the state attempted to get information out of Monica about the robbery. Several times, prosecutors stated adult charges were being considered.
“Every court date, ‘We’re ready to direct file, we’re ready to adjudicate,’ ” Belinda said, recounting the prosecutor’s comments in court.
Chris Carson, Monica’s attorney, said he asked Corey’s office how adult charges could be avoided.
In the Friday statement, Corey’s office excerpts five sentences from an email exchange between Carson and an unidentified prosecutor showing the two sides discussed a commitment.
“Carson told the prosecutor, ‘I have all of the mitigation together and we are working on formulating an offer. Obviously she will be willing to cooperate fully. Now I understand that there may be some commitment involved if we are able to settle. She is on board, I am just curious as to what level of commitment we should offer. I hate to come in with a lowball on such a serious case.’ ” the statement said.
Carson was out of town Friday and didn’t have access to his records.
“As I best recall, the commitment offer did not rise from the defense,” Carson said. He said the email doesn’t contradict his account.
The state put the nine-month deal on the table, and Monica and her family took it.
Her scholarship and dreams of attending college in the fall of 2013 vanished.
The Jacksonville area has sent more youth evaluated as low risk to re-offend to commitment facilities, where juveniles are incarcerated, than any other circuit in the state in the past five years. In fact, the 4th Circuit has sent more low-risk youth to commitment than it has youth found to be moderate risk to re-offend.
It would be “very rare” that the state would recommend commitment for a juvenile receiving a low or moderate risk to re-offend evaluation, said Mark Greenwald, the Department of Juvenile Justice’s director of research.
“In general for a low- and moderate-risk kid, you’re going to be looking at some level of community placement,” he said.
Mason said Corey’s office disagrees with DJJ’s assessments and doesn’t believe in the tool’s ability to predict the likelihood of youth behavior.
During the past five years, 23 percent of the 4th Circuit’s youth evaluated to be low or moderate risk to re-offend were committed to high- or maximum-risk facilities. That compares to 14 percent statewide.
Nearly a quarter of Florida’s committed youth found to be low risk to re-offend are juveniles from the Jacksonville area.
Threatening juveniles with adult charges is a driving factor for the Jacksonville area’s high percent of low- to moderate-risk juveniles being incarcerated, Mason said.
Lawyers, advocates, probation professionals and parents said this is evidence the state’s lawmakers should consider a checks-and-balances mechanism on a prosecutor’s power to charge a juvenile as an adult. They propose either giving juvenile judges the power to make the call or, at minimum, creating a judicial process allowing review of the prosecutor’s decision.
Simmons, the local lawyer who called the practice “bush league,” said Corey’s office will also keep juveniles in the detention facility for long periods of time or repeatedly ask for continuances, which ultimately intimidate or frighten them into taking commitments.
In some instances, the state speaks about pursuing adult charges against a juvenile only to later drop charges altogether. That’s what happened to Jasmine Moore, 17.
In May 2013, Jasmine, then 16, stopped her car along Justina Road to talk with some friends.
One of the friends dropped a loaded handgun and crack cocaine into her car when he noticed police approaching, she said.
Police found the gun and crack, and Jasmine was arrested. She contends that the gun and drugs weren’t hers and that she knew nothing about them.
Shawn Moore, Jasmine’s mother, said her will was almost broken while watching her daughter ushered around in shackles and having her case kicked down the road again and again. She was nearly ready to take a deal to keep Jasmine out of adult court, she said.
“They were about to break me down because I got tired,” Shawn Moore said. “I was like, ‘Jasmine, I hope you’re telling the truth. And if it’s somebody’s gun that you know, you need to please tell them because it looks like they’re not worried about you. It’s your life on the line.’ ”
Jasmine, like Monica, had never been in legal trouble before.
“It was scary because they kept trying to make me plead,” Jasmine said. “It was my word against the state attorney and what they thought.”
Jasmine’s father was adamant that his daughter wouldn’t take a deal “for something she didn’t do.” The family hired a private attorney, and after 90 days, the state unceremoniously dropped the case.
“They never had a case,” Shawn Moore said.
Attorney Calvin Rivers, who represented Jasmine, said the state never filed charges against Jasmine, but he was asked by the prosecutor assigned to the case to make the state an offer in order to avoid adult charges.
“They wanted me to enter into a plea negotiations without a juvenile petition being filed,” he said. “From an ethical standpoint, I couldn’t do that. That’s lazy prosecuting. Why would a prosecutor do that?”
Jasmine and her parents said Corey’s office wasn’t seeking justice, just someone to punish.
The Times-Union provided Corey’s office with Jasmine’s case number for comment, but the Friday statement does not address the case.