​Florida Is by Far the Worst State for Kids Up Against the Law

March 24, 2015

by Eli Hager, http://www.vice.com

This story was co-published with The Marshall Project.

Last week, the Florida Supreme Court ruled in Falcon v. State that juveniles not convicted of murder may not be sentenced to life in prison, and that even those convicted of murder may not be sentenced to life without parole, citing a US Supreme Court precedent that children are inherently less culpable and more amenable to rehabilitation.

This week, in the wake of that decision, approximately 200 inmates in Florida’s prisons—those who are serving life in prison for crimes they committed as juveniles—may begin applying to have their sentences retroactively reduced.

“It’s a major landmark, what we’re seeing with Falcon,” says Tania Galloni of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s branch in Florida. “This is a huge deal for juveniles in the state of Florida.”

But for Florida juveniles accused of lesser crimes—in other words, crimes that were never punishable by a sentence of life in prison—the outlook in the Sunshine State remains exceedingly dark. In fact, by most available metrics, Florida remains the worst state in the country to be a child in the justice system.

“It has been and, I think, continues to be the worst state for young people accused of crimes,” says Mishi Faruqee, an expert on juvenile justice for the ACLU. ” North Carolina and New York are unique for the lowest maximum age of juvenile jurisdiction. But otherwise, Florida is absolutely the unique state.”

Below, a rundown of the most critical ways in which Florida is decidedly not the state where children want to find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

Florida transfers more juveniles to adult court than any other state.

Florida is “the clear outlier” in terms of how many children it transfers to adult court, even among states with similar reporting practices, according to the most recent available data from the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. The state transfers juveniles at eight times the rate of California, a state with similar transfer laws and reporting.

Between 2003 and 2008, Florida transferred an average of 164.7 juveniles per 100,000; the next highest rate was Oregon’s, which transferred an average of 95.6.

And most of these youngsters diverted to adult courts are charged with nonviolent crimes. Florida transfers children for drug and property offenses at an abnormally high rate. Over the last five years, over 12,000 juveniles in the state have been transferred to face adult charges, 60 percent for nonviolent crimes and only 2.7 percent for murder.

These extraordinary numbers are mainly the result of the nation’s most expansive law allowing prosecutors the discretion to “direct file” juvenile cases in adult court. Prosecutors in Florida may “direct file” the cases of all 16 and 17-year-olds, as well as those of any 14- and 15-year-olds charged with a range of offenses against persons or property—and even some misdemeanors.

And the choice to transfer these children to adult court is entirely the prosecutor’s. There is no hearing, no burden on the prosecutor to explain his or her reasoning, no opportunity for the defendant’s lawyer to make counter-arguments. Neither the judge in juvenile court nor the judge in adult court may dispute the prosecutor’s unilateral decision.

What’s even scarier for children in this situation is that prosecutors in Florida truly use this power, frequently as a source of leverage to coerce pleas and keep cases from going to trial, according to a 2014 report by Human Rights Watch that analyzed juvenile cases around the state.

Because the threat of adult court—and, with it, adult jailing—is so real, many juveniles plead guilty before they have the chance to assert their right to see the evidence against them.

Finally, once in adult court, the consequences for children are severe. They face much longer sentences (though not life without parole, as a result of Falcon). Their rehabilitation is not an explicit intention of the proceedings, as it would have been in juvenile court; nor does the judge have any obligation to make the proceedings more comprehensible to a child, as a judge in juvenile court would. And they are saddled with a lifelong criminal record, precluding them from taking out student loans before ever applying for college, and disabling them from voting before they ever got to vote.

Florida holds more juveniles in adult facilities than any other state.

But extensive transfer to adult court is not the full extent of Florida’s abnormal treatment of juveniles. The state also houses more juveniles in adult facilities than 28 other states combined, according to the most recent reported data from 2009.

The reason? In Florida, by statute, all juveniles charged as adults in adult court are held pretrial in adult facilities.

In these adult facilities, juveniles are often farther from their families; they are not offered age-appropriate educational programming; and they are at greater risk of experiencing—or, also traumatic, witnessing—violence, sexual abuse, or suicide. (To wit, in the past few months, we have learned that prison officials at a Florida prison regularly “gassed”inmates with chemicals as punishment for filing grievances, and that a record 346 deaths occurred in the state’s prisons in 2014.)

For children charged as adults in Florida, serving time in dangerous Florida prisons is adult punishment indeed.

Florida is one of only a few states that has privatized all of its juvenile correctional facilities.

Florida also takes an unusual approach to how it imprisons juveniles who aren’t transferred to adult facilities. Namely, all of the state’s juvenile correctional facilities are privately operated. Not a single one is publicly-run, subject to full oversight by public officials.

Twenty-eight of these juvenile facilities are operated by G4S, a multinational security and risk-management corporation. Nine of the facilities are operated by Youth Services International (YSI), a company with such a history of sexual abuse scandals that only Florida has signed contracts for youth facilities with them in recent years.

Rays of hope?

But all is not hopeless for juveniles in Florida’s justice system, according to many advocates. Under the leadership of two consecutive secretaries—first Wansley Waters and now Christina Daly—the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice has shifted toward a more rehabilitative approach, according to Deb Brodsky of the Project on Accountable Justice, a Florida-based organization that collects data on criminal justice.

“Over the last five years,” she says, “DJJ has tried to divert a lot of these kids out of the system, by reducing the number of beds instead of charging so many of them.”

Five different bills that would eliminate or greatly limit prosecutors’ discretion to “direct file” have made significant headway in the Florida legislature. One bill moved out of a House committee in early March—by a 12 to 1 vote. Another bill, the subject of a hearing this week in the Senate, would put the decision to transfer juveniles to adult court in the hands of a judge, not prosecutors, and would prohibit the holding of juveniles in adult facilities.

These bills enjoy the support of an increasingly broad coalition, according to Galloni, one that has emerged as the citizens of Florida learn more and more about their state’s unique treatment of juveniles.

“At one of the hearings,” she says, “everyone from the James Madison Institute [a conservative think tank] to Human Rights Watch to the PTA was in attendance. And that’s because the story has gotten out about Florida’s frankly embarrassing status as the worst of the worst in some of these categories related to juveniles.”

As Brodsky puts it, “Sunlight is a powerful disinfectant.”

This article was reported by Eli Hager for The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization focused on the US criminal justice system. You can sign-up for their newsletter, or follow The Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter.

Children Tried As Adults in Florida

Children Tried As Adults in Florida

A Common Sense Approach to Ensure Fairness and Accountability


Florida prosecutors have virtually unfettered discretion to decide which children to try as adults. While Florida law authorizes “judicial waiver” (a court hearing to determine whether a child should be tried as an adult),1 more than 98 percent of children tried as adults are “direct filed” in adult court by prosecutors—with no hearing, due process, over­sight or input from a judge.2

Sole discretion results in wide disparities in how a child’s case is handled, depending on where he or she lives. Last year, a child charged with a felony offense was almost twice as likely to be tried as an adult in Duval or Hillsbor­ough County, three times as likely in Palm Beach County, and four times as likely in Escambia County as compared to a child in Miami-Dade.3

Florida Has the Highest Number of Adult Transfers Reported by Any State

Over the last five years, more than 10,000 children have been tried as adults in Florida.4 While the number of youth in the adult system has been on the decline, this largely tracks the overall reduction in juvenile arrests.5 Still, in 2013-2014 more than 1,300 children were transferred to adult court in Florida, the highest number of adult transfers reported by any state.6 Countless other children are pressured to accept guilty pleas just to avoid the danger of adult transfer.7

Children tried as adults are “branded for life.” A child convicted in the adult system becomes a “felon” for life, severely limiting educational and employment opportunities forever. A child loses the right to vote before even acquiring it. Children should not be placed in jeopardy of such serious consequences without a fair process.

Children Receive Most Effective Treat­ment in the Juvenile Justice System

Youth who commit serious crimes should be held account­able in the juvenile justice system. Children in adult facil­ities do not receive the education, rehabilitative services and treatment they need to ensure they do not re-offend as adults. Prosecuting children in the adult system therefore leads to more crime, not less.8 The cost to society is tangi­ble: increased recidivism and incarceration, and decreased employment opportunities and economic self-reliance. Giv­en recent reforms, Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice is uniquely equipped to provide the interventions and controls necessary to hold young offenders accountable and reduce the risk to re-offend.

  • Let a Judge Decide. Restore judicial waiver to allow a judge to decide whether a particular child should be tried as an adult.
  • Recognize Children are Different. Given the unique needs and vulnerabilities of children, ensure fair criteria before a child can be tried as an adult, and house chil­dren only in juvenile facilities.
  • Do What Works. Hold children accountable, protect public safety and use taxpayer funds effectively by treat­ing children in the juvenile justice system, where bet­ter outcomes for the individual and community are the most likely.


1 Although Florida law provides a mechanism for judges to decide which cases should go to adult court (judicial waiver), prosecutors are able to bypass that system by “direct filing” eligible cases in adult court with no judicial review or oversight. See Fla. Stat. §§. 985.556, 985.557.

2 Human Rights Watch, Branded for Life: Florida’s Prosecution of Chil­dren as Adults under its “Direct File” Statute (April 2014) (available at http://passthrough.fw-notify.net/static/163899/downloader.html).

3 Florida Department of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Profile, supra at i. According to DJJ’s data, in Miami-Dade County approximately 4.2% of youth charged with felonies were transferred to adult court (79 of 1,899). That rate was 7% in Hillsborough (99 of 1,488), 7.4% in Duval (70 of 950), 12% in Palm Beach (133 of 1,118) and 16% in Escambia (70 of 438).

4 Florida Department of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Profile, Adult Transfers Statewide 2009-2010 to 2013-2014 (available at http://www.djj.state.fl.us/research/delinquency-data/delinquency-profile/delinquen­cy-profile-dashboard).

5 Id. Over the past five years, juvenile arrests in Florida have declined by 40% and the number of children transferred to adult court has declined by over 50%.

6 Id. See also Jurisdictional Boundaries: Transfer Trends, Juvenile Justice Geography, Policy, Practice and Statistics (available at http://www.jjgps.org/jurisdictional-boundaries).

7 See, e.g., Sanders, Topher. Times-Union Investigation: Juvenile Justice?, The Florida Times Union (available at http://jacksonville.com/files/interactives/juvenilejustice/) (more than 1,500 children in Duval County have taken “direct commitments” to juvenile facilities to avoid transfer to adult court).

8 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Effects on Violence of Laws and Policies Facilitating the Transfer of Youth from the Juvenile to the Adult Justice System: A Report on Recommendations of the Task Force on Community Preventive Services. MMWR 2007; 56 (No. RR-9); Richard E. Redding, Juvenile transfer laws: An effective deterrent to delinquency? (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention) (June 2010).


End state policy that ruins young lives and leads to more crime.

End state policy that ruins young lives and leads to more crime.

By Tania Galloni, Special to The Tampa Tribune

March 11, 2015



When he was 16, Patrick Mellan was the driver in a terrible car accident. Not only did he lose his best friend, he was branded a felon for the rest of his life.

Patrick had never been in trouble before. Devastated and repentant, he was ready to accept punishment and move forward. But the state turned his life upside down. In

2012, after four years of pretrial release during which Patrick graduated from high school with honors and began college, prosecutors chose to ignore his history and his progress and decided that he should be charged as an adult.

Patrick accepted a plea deal and was sentenced to 14 years in prison, to be followed by another 10 years of probation.

Patrick’s story is not unusual. Since 1994, Florida’s “direct file” statute has granted prosecutors unfettered discretion to transfer children to adult court. Although Florida law authorizes “judicial waiver” (a court hearing to determine whether a child should be tried as an adult), prosecutors almost always bypass that system. More than 98 percent of children transferred to adult court are sent there by prosecutors with no hearing, no due process and no oversight or input from a judge.

The direct file statute is a relic of the 1990s, when states overreacted to fears of juvenile “superpredators,” a myth that has been long since debunked and even repudiated by the Princeton professor who coined the term.

But draconian laws such as these have helped build a U.S. prison population that is the largest in the world and put Florida among the 10 states that incarcerate the highest proportion of their population.

Florida transfers children as young as 12 to adult court more often than any other state — more than 1,300 in the 2013-14 fiscal year. Countless others were pressured to accept guilty pleas just to avoid the terrifying prospect of going to an adult prison. The majority of these children are nonviolent offenders.

Because the decision is left to the unchecked discretion of prosecutors, the rate of youth transfer to the adult system varies widely across the state. Last year in

Hillsborough County, a child charged with a felony offense was almost twice as likely to be moved into the adult system than a child in Miami-Dade. In 2015, the number of children transferred to adult court in Hillsborough is on track to be 50 percent higher than last year. Throughout Florida, children of color are far more likely to be tried as adults than their white counterparts.

It’s time for Florida’s policies to catch up with science and common sense. Experts now know what many parents see from experience: that children’s brains are not fully developed and that they are uniquely amenable to rehabilitation. Most will “grow out” of poor judgment or bad behavior with time and the proper interventions. But in adult jails and prisons, children do not get the help they need. They do not receive adequate education, rehabilitative services or sufficient access to their families and community support systems to complete their development into adulthood in a positive way. They face a much higher risk of sexual assault and inmate-on-inmate violence. They are at higher risk of isolation and suicide.

The fact is, trying children as adults results in more crime, not less. Research shows that children prosecuted in the adult system are 34 percent more likely to be arrested again than those convicted of similar offenses in juvenile court.

It’s time for Florida to ditch its direct file statute.

On Thursday the Florida House criminal justice committee will consider legislation,

HB 783, to limit the harmful impact of the direct file statute. Under Rep. Katie

Edwards’ bill, prosecutors would no longer be able to transfer children under 16 to the adult system. And the bill would limit the offenses for which such transfer is an option.

Patrick will be 44 when he is free from the Florida justice system. He will be a convicted felon and face all the challenges of trying to find employment, housing and a future. If these reforms had been instituted at the time of his prosecution, he would have received a just punishment in the juvenile justice system, where he belonged. He would have retained the promise of a young life.

His case exemplifies the harm that Florida’s direct file statute causes to thousands of children across the state. Direct file does not make Florida safer. It ruins many young lives and leads to more crime. Children can and should be held accountable in the system that was designed to meet their unique needs and potential: the juvenile justice system. We must stop locking up our future and throwing away the key.


Tania Galloni is managing attorney of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s office in


Don’t put kids in adult prisons

Public Defender: Don’t put kids in adult prisons

By Carlos J. Martinez

March 11, 2015



More than 20 years ago, during a wave of highly publicized tourist murders, Florida enacted laws giving prosecutors the power to remove children from juvenile court and send them to adult court without a court hearing.

These “direct file” laws turn a teenager into an adult without judicial consideration of that child’s intellectual, moral or cognitive capacity, or the child’s amenability to treatment and rehabilitation. Before direct file, a child could be tried as an adult, but only after a judicial hearing or indictment by a grand jury.

Floridians were sold on the idea that getting tough on juvenile offenders would make everyone safer and deter young offenders from committing crime. However, there has not been a single study that shows that direct filing reduces crime. To the contrary, numerous studies conclude that direct-filed youth re-offend sooner and more violently than their similarly matched counterparts who remain in the juvenile system.

Children do not have the same decision-making abilities as adults. Children, particularly teens, are wired for impulsiveness, thrill seeking and peer approval. They biologically have less executive function because their frontal lobe, the brain’s planning region, is not mature. That’s why we have laws restricting children from entering into contracts, from voting and even smoking. But children’s innate lack of formation means they have an increased capacity to change and reform.

Yet, Florida ignores that reality.

One key issue is, Where will we place our developing teens — in a prison environment with hardened adults or in a secure juvenile facility with education, services and appropriate adult role models? And, who should make that decision — impartial judges or prosecutors?

In arguing against changing direct-file laws, prosecutors point to a drop in direct files.

This drop corresponds to reductions in overall crime. Even the 35 states that do not direct file are experiencing record lows of juvenile and adult crime. Prosecutors also say that they only transfer the worst of the worst. But studies show 60 percent were direct filed for nonviolent offenses, and there is disparate treatment of children and high rates of incarceration in some parts of the state.

In some Florida counties, the prosecutors use the threat or possibility of transfer to adult court to force children into juvenile commitment programs. To avoid the transfer, the children are forced to decide on plea bargains in juvenile court without having access to the evidence (discovery), without the names of witnesses, with no opportunity to question the witnesses, no testing of the evidence (e.g., fingerprints, DNA), no opportunity to challenge any possible constitutional violations and without a trial.

Judges do not decide the child’s sentence, prosecutors do. Unlike all other juvenile cases, the prosecutor and not the Department of Juvenile Justice determine the most appropriate placement for that particular child. In essence, the child has to give up every constitutional and statutory right to avoid adult court.

The children who want their day in court are filed into adult court where they face terms in prison, where sexual and other abuse can occur. Apparently, a child is not the “worst” as long as the child pleads guilty immediately and gives up all due-process rights.

Unchecked government power over our children undermine basic American values —due process of law, equal justice under law and checks and balances on government power. The level of due process a child receives should not depend on where that child lives. The prosecutor’s unchecked power makes a mockery of the adversarial system, and exacerbates distrust and disdain for our justice system.

We can do better this year. Several bills have been filed to reform Florida’s “direct file” system. Join me in urging the Legislature to place a minimum age for children who can be indicted, eliminate or curtail direct files and instead require judicial hearings, prohibit children with mental illness or developmental disabilities to be charged as adults, establish more uniformity throughout state and house all children in juvenile detention centers before trial and not in adult jails. Additional information is available at www.noplaceforachild.com.


Justice should be age-appropriate

Justice should be age-appropriate

By Katie Edwards

March 6, 2015



At 16, liver was prosecuted in adult court for stealing two laptops from a high school classroom. At 17, Matthew was prosecuted in adult court for stealing a printer from the back porch of a house. Before they even graduated from high school, Oliver and Matthew became convicted felons — a designation that will affect the rest of their lives — impacting their ability to get jobs, find housing, vote or get student loans.

Many people know that children in Florida can be tried as adults for serious crimes. But youth who are convicted of murder represent a tiny minority of children who are tried as adults. More than 60 percent of youth transferred to adult court are charged with nonviolent felonies.

Almost all, 98 percent, of youth tried in adult court end up there because of our state’s “direct file” statute. It’s a process that gives prosecutors the sole discretion to decide whether a youth should be in the adult system, with no involvement by a judge. This broad discretion results in vast disparities between the judicial circuits, meaning that youths who commit the same crime, with the same facts, in St. Petersburg and

Jacksonville face far different odds they will end up in adult court.

One thing we can agree on is justice should be consistent. For young offenders in Florida, it’s anything but.

One offender may go to the juvenile justice system, where the focus is on rehabilitation and getting needed help to become a productive member of society. The other may end up in the Department of Corrections, without access to services, learning how to be a better criminal from the seasoned adult prisoners there.

The societal costs for youth in the adult system are massive. Multiple studies have shown that recidivism among teens thrown into adult court by the direct file process is more than 30 percent.

Our state can do better. That is why I filed HB 783.

The legislation does not abolish direct file, nor does it prevent a prosecutor from charging as an adult a youth who commits a heinous crime. Instead, it reforms the system, making sure that prosecutors cannot use the threat of adult sanctions to force a youth to plead to a lesser charge — a frequent tactic in many judicial circuits.

Before filing HB 783, I talked to experts on the issue, including defense attorneys, prosecutors and law enforcement, and addressed their concerns in the legislation. The result is a bill that allows a prosecutor the option to direct file a 17-year-old defendant who has committed multiple armed robberies, but also makes sure that the 15-year-old who steals her neighbor’s bicycle gets the help she needs.

All of us have stories about the stupid things we did while we were teenagers. Looking back, we shake our heads and say “I have no idea why I did that.”

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t hold teenagers accountable for breaking the law, just that we should do it in an age-appropriate way, without lifetime consequences

Our society already recognizes that youth are different; we say those under 18 cannot vote, cannot enter into binding contracts and cannot serve our country in the military. We say that those under 21 are too immature to handle the effects of alcohol. We should not have a different standard in our criminal justice system.

Justice should be consistent. Justice should be effective. Justice should have the capacity for compassion when it’s appropriate. Let’s make these aims the law in Florida and make needed changes to the state’s direct file system.

State Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, represents District 98 in the Florida House.

Prosecuting children as adults creates more criminals

Sal Nuzzo: Prosecuting children as adults creates more criminals

By Sal Nuzzo, Special to The Sun

March 9, 2015



There are plenty of areas in which Florida is a national leader and should be proud.

Florida is consistently leading the nation in job growth, educational achievement, business climate, economic freedom, and overall quality of life. Every year close to 100 million people visit our state from all over the globe – we lead the nation, and most of the world, as a top travel destination. These are all benchmarks to be incredibly proud of.

There is one measure, however, that should shock Floridians, invoke concern and implore action. Florida prosecutes more children as adults than any other state in the nation. This is a primary result of an antiquated and often abused statute known as “direct file.”

Since 1978, Florida law has effectively allowed prosecutors the sole discretion to send children directly into the adult court system. Florida’s direct file statute allows youth as young as 14 to be sentenced to adult sanctions, including probation, jail and prisons with no judicial review or approval.

And while tough-on-crime advocates might be prone to claim that this statute acts to reduce crime – they’d be wrong. Transferring children to the adult criminal justice system for trial and to serve out their sentence has shown to make young offenders more violent, essentially providing these young men and women with the opportunity to learn how to be better criminals. Youth held temporarily or officially committed to the adult criminal justice system are 34 percent more likely to be rearrested for felonies than youth who had been retained in the juvenile justice system.

Advocates for the status quo might say that this process helps ensure that we lock up the worst of the worst. That claim would be in spite of the fact that in each of the past five years, the majority of children transferred to adult court were charged with non-violent offenses. Between 2008 and 2013, burglary accounted for the single largest number of cases of youth transferred to adult court, making up almost a third of all cases. Property felonies in general made up almost 40 percent of all cases transferred.

Basic common sense would lead us to recognize that instead of reducing crime, prosecuting a child as an adult and sending them to an adult state correctional facility produces crime by making youth more likely to commit crimes in the future.

At the James Madison Institute, we focus on economic issues facing Florida. The direct file statute as currently applied carries a significant economic cost – to Florida’s taxpayers, to our economy, to the very qualities of our state we are so proud of, and lest we forget, to this generation of youth that will all one day join their communities again.

We need a process that is effective in treating these children; one that exists to deter them from a life of crime, not show them the ropes.

First, we should recognize there is a difference between children who are accused of nonviolent versus violent offenses. Second, we should understand that diversion programs and restorative justice based in Florida’s juvenile justice system have proven to provide more positive outcomes for Florida’s children. Third, we must place more worth on the economic value on reducing recidivism among youth offenders. To this end, the state should examine whether prosecutors should be the sole arbiters of whether or not a child should be charged and tried as an adult for certain non-violent offenses.

From an economic standpoint this is an issue that deserves attention; however, there’s no denying a human cost is involved. We will be vigilant in our education efforts and remain hopeful that this session legislators will address this serious topic. It’s time Florida move in the direction of recognizing that our children should be treated like children and that Florida’s direct file statute is in need of serious reform.

Sal Nuzzo is vice president of policy for the James Madison Institute.

One State Sentences More Children as Adults Than Any Other—and Kids Are Paying the Price

The punishment doesn’t fit the crime in Florida, where a shocking number of children are charged as adults for nonviolent crimes.

(Photo: Getty Images)


February 27, 2015

Samantha Cowan is a regular contributor for TakePart. She writes for a variety of online publications covering global development, music, and technology.

Ava was convicted of a DUI when she was 17 and was sentenced to three years of probation after being prosecuted as an adult in Florida—a legal process that she hardly understood, by her own account. Those prosecuted as juveniles can have their records expunged for such crimes, but even after serving the sentence, the childhood mistake has followed her, making it difficult to establish the basics of a productive adult life.

“I didn’t know how hard it was gonna be to try and find a job, or to try and have a life, to try and get an apartment, a car, anything. I didn’t know that you couldn’t do any of these things if you have a record,” she told Human Rights Watch.

“I need to start over, I need to show people, look, I’m capable of doing things and that I’m not the same person I was, and I’m not gonna keep making those dumb decisions.”

Thousands of kids are in the same boat, marked early as failures through what can in many cases amount to youthful indiscretions. Unlike the juvenile system, adult convictions stay with the child forever, labeling them convicted felons for life—which is why Human Rights Watch didn’t release Ava’s last name, or the full identifications of most of the nonviolent offenders they are working to improve protections for.

Florida’s treatment of minor offenders is considered the worst in the nation, according to experts at the Southern Poverty Law Center, an advocacy group. That’s because the state operates under the system of direct file, in which the prosecutor makes the sole decision whether to charge children as adults or juveniles.

“Unlike most states, Florida has no mechanism on the juvenile or adult side for the judge to review the prosecutor’s decision and keep or send the case back to juvenile court,” Tania Galloni, managing attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, told TakePart.

A new bill sent to the Senate this month aims to keep more children in the juvenile justice system by putting the power back in judges’ hands. During an adversarial hearing, the judge would make the final call after hearing from both the defense and the prosecution, taking into consideration the seriousness of the crime and the individual’s personality and history.

As it stands, trying children as adults isn’t reserved for only heinous violent crimes. Sixty percent of minors transferred to adult courts in Florida were tried for nonviolent crimes, such as theft and drug-related instances, in 2012 and 2013, according to an HRW 2014 report. Even repeat offenders for misdemeanors can be tried as adults, which means harsh sentences for petty theft and breaking and entering.

Fifteen other states allow for some form of direct file at the prosecutor’s discretion, but Florida transfers more children to the adult system than any other state. Approximately 2,420 juveniles are transferred to adult courts each year. That translates to close to 4 percent of kids charged with crimes being tried as adults, HRW reports.

Florida’s rate is so high in large part because the court allows for children 16 and older to be charged as a criminal for any offense, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Vermont, Nebraska, and Wyoming have similar laws, but Florida goes one step further by lowering the age to 14 for murder and a variety of other offenses relating to drugs, property, and weapons.

But treating kids like adults doesn’t work. “The irony is that trying kids as adults actually leads to more recidivism—kids are more likely to re-offend and with more serious crimes,” said Galloni. Half of juveniles who were convicted as adults went on to be repeat offenders, while 35 percent stayed in the juvenile system, according to a 2002 survey.

Backsliding into past behaviors after release from adult facilities is more prevalent as they don’t offer assistance. “In the Juvenile justice system youth receive transition and wraparound services, yet when youth are released from the adult system, there are no services, just supervision,” Cathy Craig-Myers, a spokesperson for the Florida Juvenile Justice Association, told TakePart.

Prosecutors often favor direct file because they have a vested stake in transferring children to the adult system. “Prosecutors like to tout being ‘tough on crime,’ ” Galloni explained, with longer sentences readily available in adult court.

When it appears as though the case isn’t going their way, prosecutors often use the threat of adult court as a bargaining chip to force defendants into false confessions, advocates say. A guilty plea can keep minors in juvenile court instead of risking a trial by jury and possibly harsher sentences if they refuse to cooperate.

Another HRW study subject, Oliver B., who was charged with stealing two laptop computers as a 16-year-old, was presented with such an option. But determined to prove his innocence, he declined and found himself in adult court looking at more than a decade of prison time if convicted.

Oliver eventually accepted a plea deal of three years of probation in adult court. “If I would have let a jury decide my fate I would have gotten 11 to 15 years in prison, so I chose to be…a felon at 16,” Oliver told HRW. “What happened to me was unfair. I am afraid to leave my home in fear that anything will land me in prison.”

To make matters worse, since the decision is solely up to prosecutors, their own biases come into play. Boys receive the brunt of the punishment; they are 13 times more likely to be charged as adults than girls, HRW’s research found. Boys of color are also disproportionately impacted, making up 51 percent of the transfers to adult court even though they only account for 27 percent of the arrests.

No one is saying these kids should get a free pass but instead spend time in accommodations that prioritize rehabilitation over punishment. “Juvenile justice facilities routinely provide highly specialized substance abuse, mental health, and sex offender treatment, as opposed to adult correctional facilities, which primarily provide ‘three hots and a cot’ and no substantive treatment or rehabilitation,” said Craig-Myers.

The family, prosecutor, and defendant come together to determine the best course of action that will allow the child to grow beyond his or her past infractions. Juvenile records are sealed after their sentence is served, allowing young adults to apply for jobs or entrance to universities without disclosing a criminal past.

“The fact is that kids are works in progress; their brains are still developing,” said Galloni, noting the possibilities for reform in children. “So if instead of doing what appears ‘tough,’ [prosecutors] actually followed what works, we’d all be better off.”

Why States Are Changing Course on Juvenile Crime

Why States Are Changing Course on Juvenile Crime


If Alonza Thomas were a kid today, he might not have ended up serving 13 years in an adult prison.

Thomas committed an armed robbery in 2000 at age 15, shortly after California had tightened its laws against juvenile offenders. The initiative was part of a wave of harsh new laws passed nationwide, aimed at striking back against an anticipated wave of juvenile “superpredators” — remorseless kid criminals.

No one was harmed in the robbery, and Thomas was a first-time offender. But under the new law, Proposition 21, he would be tried as an adult and sentenced to hard time. Facing as many as four decades in prison, Thomas pleaded guilty, lowering his sentence to 13 years, which he would serve in adult prison.

By the time Thomas went to prison, the superpredator scare had been debunked. Juvenile arrest rates peaked in 1997 and have been dropping ever since. Meanwhile, state juvenile facilities and even adult prisons were filling up with kids, straining state budgets and raising serious human-rights concerns.

That is starting to change. In the last six or seven years, states have begun to consider new approaches to juvenile offenders, backed by research showing that incarceration actually increases the chances a young person will commit another crime.

That data has been piling up for years. But states recently have been spurred to act in large part by budget shortfalls amid the recession, and a string of state and federal court decisions objecting to harsh sentencing for young people.

There’s another factor: Crime overall has gone down. After peaking in 1997, the juvenile arrest rate had dropped 48 percent by 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, according to the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. That’s made reform easier to sell politically, making the issue a win on both sides of the political spectrum.

Between 1997 and 2011, 46 states reduced their rate of commitments for juveniles.

“There is a more general movement,” explained Delbert Elliott, an emeritus professor at the University of Colorado who studies juvenile crime. “We are past the mentality of, ‘You do an adult crime, you do adult time.’”

The Courts Step In 

The juvenile justice landscape has been reshaped in part by a trio of Supreme Court decisions, starting in 2004.

That year, in Roper v. Simmons, the court abolished capital punishment for crimes committed by juveniles. In 2010, the court decided in Graham v. Florida that states cannot impose mandatory life sentences on juveniles convicted of crimes other than homicide. Two years later, in Miller v. Alabama, it expanded on that ruling, declaring mandatory life sentences for juveniles convicted of any crime to be unconstitutional.

“What Roper and Graham and Miller said explicitly was that kids are not adults. Children are different,” said Barry Feld, a juvenile law professor at the University of Minnesota and a leading expert on juvenile justice. The courts drew on research showing that adolescent brains aren’t fully developed — particularly when it comes to emotion and decision-making.

The court decisions, he said, “put the onus on the states now for how to respond to young offenders who are convicted and sentenced in criminal court.” The Miller decision overturned mandatory sentencing policies in 28 states.

But state responses have been mixed. Two years later, only 13 have passed new legislation to bring their laws into compliance with the ruling, according to an analysis by The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit dedicated to criminal justice reform. Those states still require young people to serve long sentences, from 25 to 40 years, before they have a chance at parole. Even those sentences, some reform advocates argue, are far too long to be in compliance with the court’s rulings. On Dec. 15, the Supreme Court said that it would take up a new case, Toca v. Louisiana, to determine whether the Millerruling should be applied retroactively.

Some states have also been forced into changing they way they deal with juveniles by state or federal court rulings. Violent or abusive conditions in juvenile justice systems have been documented in 22 states and Washington D.C. since 2000, according to an analysis by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which helps states reform their juvenile justice programs. In each case, the lawsuits demonstrated “systemic or recurring failure to protect youth from serious psychical or psychological harm,” such as physical and sexual abuse by staff and other inmates, and the overuse of solitary confinement and restraints.

A Cheaper Alternative

As the recession cramped state budgets, many departments began looking for ways to reduce the costs of juvenile incarceration in their state. A new study by the Justice Policy Institute found that 33 states and jurisdictions spend $100,000 or more annually to incarcerate one young person. By comparison, it costs only about $10,000 a year to send them to public school.

Since 2005, 23 states have taken steps to keep juveniles out of adult prisons, such as raising the age of criminal responsibility and coming up with alternatives to large detention facilities, according to research by the Campaign for Youth Justice.

New York, for example, began to reform its juvenile justice system in 2011. The state was struggling with budget shortfalls, and its juvenile system was a mess. More than 60 percent of juveniles who had been locked up re-offended, and some facilities were under investigation by the Justice Department for their brutal conditions, according to a report on the reforms.

The state set up a task force to implement reforms, including a program to keep young offenders in their own communities rather than sending them to facilities upstate, and focus on their education, mental health and substance abuse problems. Since then, the number of youth in state custody has been cut by 45 percent. Juvenile arrests have also declined.

This year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo called on lawmakers to raise the state’s age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18.

Tough-on-crime states are also implementing reforms. In 2013, the Texas legislaturemoved to keep kids in smaller facilities closer to home instead of large state-run facilities, where reports of abuse were rampant. The state also passed two laws in 2013intended to curb the prosecution of kids for offenses in school — such as disrupting a class or bringing in tobacco — cut the number of children in adult court by 83 percent.

Kentucky passed a package of new reforms this year that allows officials in schools and courts to work with young people caught up for minor offenses, linking them with social services rather than routing them through the criminal system. As FRONTLINE reported earlier this year, the state found that it was locking up kids at high rates even as the juvenile crime rate went down, draining half of its juvenile justice budget. And 13 percent of the cases were offenses for which adults can’t be punished — like skipping school. Officials who spearheaded the reforms have said they hope to intervene in young people’s lives while they still have a chance to turn their lives around.

“The Way the System Operates”

In some ways, the change hasn’t been as deep as it seems. There are fewer young people locked up today — 6,000 in adult prisons and roughly 70,000 in juvenile facilities, according to federal data, down from roughly 100,000 youth incarcerated in all facilities in 1997, when arrest rates peaked. But the reforms haven’t had nearly the same impact on minority teens, in particular African-American and Latino youth.

At the height of the mass incarceration era, the arrest rate for white youth was a little over 7,400 per 100,000, compared to 14,300 for black youth, according to the National Center for Juvenile Justice. Today, with juvenile arrest rates cut in half, the arrest rate for black youth is 8,400 per 100,000 — still greater than what it was for white youth back then.

“You can’t understand the way the system operates without understanding these differences, and the idea that we have this kind of disparity,” said Nate Balis, director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s juvenile justice strategy group, which works with states to implement reforms.

Studies have found that from the schools to the court system, black and Latino youth are much more likely to be dealt with harshly than white youth who commit the same crimes. They are more likely to be disciplined in school, even as preschoolers, and administrators are much more likely to involve law enforcement when minority students act out. Once in the juvenile system, blacks and Latinos are more likely to be transferredto adult court and incarcerated than whites who commit similar crimes. The disparitymay even extend to hue: One study found that darker-skinned girls were punished more severely than lighter-skinned ones.

The federal government set up a program this year to help school administrators begin to erode racial bias. The Justice Department has also started to target individual jurisdictions where its investigators have found patterns of racial bias. In 2012, the government signed a consent decree with a major county in Tennessee, after finding that even controlling for other factors, African-American children were treated more harshly in the juvenile justice system. The deal requires the county to submit to widespread reforms, including revising its policies on how it treats kids in the system and consider more often alternatives to detention.

A year later, the department signed a similar agreement with the school district in Meridian, Miss., where the government found black students received harsher punishments and longer suspensions than white students who misbehaved in similar ways. The deal requires the district to provide clear guidelines and training on disciplinary policies for teachers and staff, and set up a system to track progress.


Charged as Adults, Children Are Abandoned When They Could Be Saved

Charged as Adults, Children Are Abandoned When They Could Be Saved

Marc Mauer
Marc Mauer is the executive director of The Sentencing Project and the author of “Race to Incarcerate.”

AUGUST 18, 2014

A terrible tragedy has taken place in Michigan, with a 12-year-old boy accused of killing his 9-year-old companion. The decision to try such cases in adult court raises two fundamental questions. First, is this a reasonable course of action when the defendant is just a child, and second, what would the larger community gain by doing so?

Juvenile courts were established in recognition that children lack the maturity to appreciate the consequences of their acts, but can be rehabilitated.
The juvenile court was established over a century ago out of the basic recognition that children are different than adults. A 12-year-old lacks the maturity to appreciate the consequences of his actions and is not capable of aiding his attorney in presenting a legal defense. Moreover, the juvenile court has historically prioritized rehabilitating youthful offenders, no matter how serious the crime, because of the understanding that such change is uniquely possible for young people.

Some argue, though, that we need to “send a message” to the community that criminal behavior will not be tolerated. But is there a real risk that locking up the young boy in Michigan until he’s 21, as would be the case were he retained in the juvenile system, would somehow condone his alleged behavior? Further, it’s difficult to imagine that a trial in adult court would produce any deterrence benefits. It’s not as if other young boys are rationally calculating the relative number of years that they might be incarcerated before deciding to commit a senseless crime.

Frequently, a prosecutor will contend that an adult conviction allows a court to keep a young offender incarcerated after he turns 21, and conceivably for the rest of his life, for public safety purposes. But do we really believe that a decade behind bars is not a sufficient time to provide the assessment and treatment services necessary to aid troubled children?

As we consider how to handle the Michigan case, we would do well to note the words of the defendant just after the crime: “I just stabbed someone,” and “I want to die.” One cannot imagine a more profound cry for help. If we try to respond to that cry, we might have the chance to provide him with some semblance of a productive life after he serves time in the juvenile justice system. And in doing so, we could also try to understand how such a tragedy could have happened and what we can do to prevent the next one.

Jacksonville youth in legal trouble have a decision to make: Agree to time in a juvenile facility or roll the dice as an adult

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, to************@ja**********.com

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.






DJJ recommendation

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.





Chapter Three

Monica’s case

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.