There is finally a glimmer of bipartisan support in the Florida Legislature for meaningful, though modest, juvenile justice reform. Lawmakers should not let that ember of hope die out. The fact that Florida leads the nation in charging children and young teens as adults is outrageous. Legislation currently under consideration could help push back when prosecutors overreach.
Last week, members of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee unanimously supported a measure that would require that a judge first determine if prosecutors should charge a juvenile as an adult. If the judge says No, the youth’s case would return to the juvenile system.
This small, but critical intervention, could mean the difference between young people being able to move beyond the mistake they made — finish school, find employment, serve in the military — or risk being dogged for the rest of their lives by that same mistake.
In Florida, unfortunately, the latter example is a more likely scenario. Which system into which young criminal suspects’ cases land can make all the difference between whether they can be set on the path to a lawful life or get sucked deeper into criminality because they are not getting rehabilitative services in adult prison — to say nothing of their exposure to more hardened criminals.
Three-quarters of the children sent to the adult system in Florida are African American or Hispanic. Statistics from the state Department of Juvenile Justice show that 904 children were transferred to the adult system in 2017-2018. It’s encouraging that the number represents a decrease from the previous year’s total of 1,128.
In addition to inserting — it is hoped — unbiased judicial review into the process, HB 575 also would prevent juveniles from being held in jails for adults until after the judge’s decision. Juveniles could not be automatically remanded to adult court for a specific set of charges.
In the past 10 years, more than 15,000 children and youths have been charged in adult court in Florida. A Miami Herald op-ed by Stephen Ross, Anquan Boldin and Stan Van Gundy, all influential figures in sports, succinctly made the case for reform:
“Children of color disproportionately bear the weight of that policy: They make up 67 percent of children arrested (itself a disproportionate share of the population) and 77 percent of kids arrested by police whom prosecutors eventually try as adults. Most children tried in adult court are accused of committing relatively minor offenses, and almost all end up there without review or approval from a judge. A procedure known as “direct file” allows a prosecutor almost complete discretion to get around Florida’s typical minimum age for adult prosecution and charge children under 18 as adults.”
Lawmakers in the House must keep HB 575 moving forward, bringing it to the floor of the full House for a vote. Though approved by the subcommittee, as of Tuesday, the bill had not been scheduled for two more committee votes required to bring it to the full House. Similarly, the state Senate has not yet acted on a companion bill.
Leading the nation in sending children to adult court is nothing to be proud of. Too many prosecutors are hewing to anachronistic policies created in the panic of the 1990s when violent youth crime surged alarmingly. Lawmakers may have overreacted even then. Three decades later, those policies must change to reflect the decline in youth crime, what we now know about brain development and teens’ inability to make responsible decisions, the fiscal costs and, as important, the human costs.