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.