Florida leads the nation in incarcerating juveniles in adults prisons and jails – at a rate of more than 100 youth per month. This year, the ACLU of Florida and more than 20 coalition partners are asking the Florida Legislature to change this.
This decision to transfer a youth to the adult system carries hefty consequences. We know adolescence is a time of rapid brain development. Trauma at this age is life-altering. Our focus must be on rehabilitation. Florida law requires judges send these youth to adult county jails to await trial. If they happen to live in a smaller county, they are likely to spend that wait in isolation as they must be segregated from the adult population for safety. Youth prosecuted as adults, even with similar risk scores and offenses upon arrest, are more likely to reoffend. Once charged as an adult, a youth will forever be considered an adult by the justice system. If convicted of a felony, youth are stripped of their civil rights, i.e. right to vote, to run for office, etc., before they ever receive them.
Furthermore, housing youth in adult prisons is costly and complicated. How will they be protected from adult offenders? How will they be educated? How will they transition to the adult world upon release? The adult criminal justice system is simply not designed to rehabilitate youth – that’s precisely why we have a juvenile justice system. So, how do these youth get to the adult system?
Currently, a state attorney faced with a youth he or she believes should be prosecuted as an adult has three options: present the case to the grand jury for an indictment, request the juvenile court judge to waive jurisdiction over the youth, or simply charge the juvenile as an adult. This last option, commonly called “direct file,” accounts for 98% of juvenile cases transferred to adult court. There is no hearing, no judicial review, no avenue for appeal. Simply, no due process.
Looking at the outcomes of these transfers illustrates that these youth aren’t particularly exceptional. Most are facing non-violent felony charges, mainly property and drug crimes, or misdemeanors. Less than one-third were classified as being at high risk to reoffend. More than 70 percent are sentenced to probation – not prison. Most accept plea bargains.
The current system is clearly not working. Punishing youth in an adult criminal justice system does not deter crime or craft model citizens. No, it increases the likelihood of reoffending and makes the path to success even harder.
HB 509 concerning Juvenile Justice was filed in the Florida House by Rep. Shaw. Sen. Powell filed the Senate companion, SB 936. The bill would substantially change the way juveniles are transferred to adult courts in Florida by providing an avenue for judicial review of the decision to direct file a youth, restricting the cases where direct file would be available and ensuring juveniles convicted of felonies retain their civil rights.