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