I sit at my desk wondering why they don’t get it. Why do our legislators continue to do nothing to help hurting children and hurting families?
Since 2009 more than 13,000 children have been prosecuted as adults in Florida. Florida prosecutes more children as adults for felonies than any other state and we give this incredibly powerful decision-making to the prosecutor, not a judge.
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In 2017-18 there were 904 children who were sent to the adult criminal justice system. This was a slight decrease from the 1,128 children who were sent to the adult criminal justice system in 2016-17, according to the state Department of Juvenile Justice. On top of that, the data shows that of these children, more than three out of every four who were transferred to the adult system were either African American or Hispanic.
Our prosecutors charge more children as adults for felonies than anywhere else in the country. Judges can’t review or challenge these decisions. This process is called “direct file,” which means a child is taken from a juvenile center and placed into the adult system.
Once a prosecutor has charged a child as an adult, the judge must accept what the prosecutor decided. The prosecutor has immunity from wrongful prosecution, meaning nothing can happen to them for being overzealous in their job prosecuting a child as an adult who really needed counseling and support services offered in the juvenile system, not the adult system.
For the last six years Democratic state Sen. Bobby Powell has sponsored a bill that would limit the direct filing of children into the adult justice system. This year that bill was SB 876 (HB 575 by Democratic Rep. James Bush was the House companion bill) but again it died in session and was not passed. What a shame.
Another bill that would have helped our children was SB 870, which would house children who are prosecuted as adults in juvenile facilities instead of adult jail as they await trial. Judges would have discretion to order youth to be housed elsewhere if the situation poses a threat to the security or safety of other children in the facility, or if the child requests to be detained elsewhere.
And yet a third bill that was introduced to help children that went nowhere: SB 850 and HB 339, which eliminates mandatory transfer to adult court. This bill would have eliminated the ability to charge a child younger than 14 as an adult and would have prohibited direct file of 14- and 15-year-olds into the adult justice system. This bill would have also eliminated mandatory transfer of 16- and 17-year-olds for any crime and limited the discretionary transfer to only the most serious crimes, such as murder or manslaughter.
So, let me get this straight, we don’t allow children under 18 to buy alcohol or cigarettes, we don’t allow children under 18 to watch an R-rated movie but we will send them to an adult jail or prison? We don’t allow them to serve on juries, join the military or enter a legal contract, but we will place them into an adult jail or prison? Does that make any sense to you?
Legislature has more work to do
Clearly, we understand that the human brain of a child is not the same as an adult, yet our legislators continue to allow prosecutors who are nothing more than people hired to do a job to decide the direction of a child’s future rather than a judge. A judge is an impartial party, not a prosecutor.
The adult system is not prepared to deal with the unique needs of juveniles, including education and counseling services.
We should let a judge, not a prosecutor, decide which court is more appropriate for a child and require the judge to explain the court’s decision in writing. The judge would consider factors such as a child’s age and maturity, history of trauma, level of participation in the offense and whether the child and community would be better served if the case were handled in the juvenile or adult system.
I’ve personally witnessed children over and over suffer the cruel and harsh effects of being placed into an adult system. I’ve watched some of my clients who are charged as juveniles enter the adult system only to be confined to a cell alone, in isolation, prevented from being able to access the phone to talk to their mom, for example.
While we sincerely appreciate the real effort the Senate made this year to help do better for our kids and our communities (particularly Sens. Jeff Brandes, a Republican; Randolph Bracy, a Democrat; Rob Bradley, a Republican; Joe Gruters, a Republican; Keith Perry, a Republican; Powell and Darryl Rouson, a Democrat), we hope their colleagues will listen and do more to pass meaningful reforms in 2020.
It’s time to do better for kids and our communities. It’s just the right thing to do.
Denise Rock is executive director of Florida Cares, a volunteer-driven nonprofit that focuses on improving the lives of the incarcerated through programs, visitation and advocacy. Rock is a paralegal, has been president of the Paralegal Association of Florida Palm Beach County Chapter, is a licensed private investigator and a certified facilitator with the International Institute of Restorative Justice Practices.