Editorial: Keep children out of adult prisons


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

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

March 24, 2015

by Eli Hager,

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

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 at­cy-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

7 See, e.g., Sanders, Topher. Times-Union Investigation: Juvenile Justice?, The Florida Times Union (available at (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


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.”