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.
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