The United States Supreme Court has determined that youth are different: less mature biologically, more vulnerable to negative influences and outside pressures, less able to control their environment or circumstances, and less likely to be irretrievably depraved. This unique developmental stage undermines the punitive goals of the criminal justice system, "even when they commit terrible crimes."
As such, our U.S. Constitution forbids states from putting juveniles to death, sentencing juveniles to life without parole for nonhomicide offenses or mandating life without parole sentences for juveniles. Each juvenile’s unique circumstances must be considered to determine an individualized sentence.
In Florida, however, more than 1,000 youth each year are charged as adults. This decision shifts these children from the juvenile delinquency system, with its goal of "effective prevention, intervention and treatment services that strengthen and reform the lives of children" to the adult criminal justice system, which is focused instead primarily on punishing the offender, with goals of rehabilitation secondary.
While prosecutors wishing to charge a juvenile as an adult may seek a grand jury indictment or to request the juvenile court waive jurisdiction, in 98% of cases, the prosecutor simply decides to charge the youth as an adult. This is called “Direct File”. There is no mandatory assessment of the youth, no mandated opportunity for the youth to present his case or mitigating factors and no opportunity for appeal. No judge weighs in on this decision and no judge may reverse it.
Judges must send youth charged as adults, who are presumed innocent, to the adult county jail to await trial. Federal law mandates sight/sound separation between juvenile and adult inmates, which leads to youth, especially girls, being held in isolation for months on end. Solitary confinement is also used for discipline and to keep co-defendents apart. While these children retain their right to a free and equal education, including any provisions for learning disabilities, this right is grossly neglected, with some school districts providing no more than two or three hours of instruction weekly.
With no uniformity or transparency in process and no accountability of judicial oversight, Florida’s youth are subjected to disparate treatment. Youth are charged as adults at widely disparate rates across the state 4 per 10,000 in Orange and Miami-Dade counties; 10 per 10,000 in Polk County; 25 per 10,000 in Escambia County.
Black boys are the most likely to be charged as adults – 35 per 10,000, compared to 5 per 100,000 of white or Latino boys. Girls account for only 4% of the youth charged as adults, but this racial disparity persists with black girls twice as likely to be charged as adults as white girls and nearly four times as likely as Latinas.
While state attorneys assure the public that this decision is reserved for the worst of the worst, many have lower risk scores than juveniles sentenced to residential treatment programs in the juvenile system. More than 70% of the youth charged as adults were ultimately sentenced to probation – most did not score high enough on the state’s sentencing score sheet to warrant prison sentences. Adult probation is not designed for juveniles. It often requires full-time employment, stable housing, and other tasks that are not within a juvenile’s control. 30% of juveniles sentenced to adult probation were sent to prison for technical probation violations.
While adult court judges may sentence juveniles charged as adults to juvenile sanctions, it is rare that they do. Like the majority of criminal cases, the majority of these cases are settled through plea negotiations.
Ultimately, youth charged as adults are more likely to commit a future felony than similar peers rehabilitated in the juvenile delinquency system. This is not surprising. The goal of the adult criminal justice system is not to rehabilitate - it is to punish. Youth growing up in such a system struggle to develop the skills necessary to be successful.