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.