Will Florida Stop Sending So Many Kids to Adult Prisons?

Florida sends more kids to adult prisons than does any other state, largely owing to the state’s “direct file” law, which gives prosecutors — not judges — discretion over whether to charge children as adults. But this year, there are five separate bill proposals to reform the oft-criticized practice. This points to a major philosophical shift in how juvenile cases ought to be handled.

The most-talked-about bill is HB 783, put forth by Rep. Katie Edwards (D-Plantation), which would limit direct files to children over age 14 who have been charged with specific crimes. Fourteen and 15-year-olds could be charged as adults only for murder, manslaughter, and sexual assault. Children ages 16 and 17 could be exposed to adult charges for a wider range of crimes, including weapons charges and arson. For 13-year-olds charged with murder, manslaughter, or sexual assault, a grand jury would have to decide whether he or she be charged as an adult.

Other bills have been proposed by Rep. Bobby Powell (D-Riviera Beach) and three state senators, including Sen. Thad Altman (R-Brevard), whose SB 1082 has the backing of the Southern Poverty Law Center and Human Rights Watch. Both organizations consider Altman’s bill to be the most comprehensive reform effort because it would do away with the direct-file process entirely and replace it with a hearing in which a judge would make the final decision about how to charge the juvenile. It also would make children under age 16 ineligible to be charged as adults.

“Part of what’s happening is people are realizing that the ‘tough on crime’ policy of the last 20 years or so has really backfired and is affecting the state economically and socially,” says Tania Galloni, managing attorney for SPLC, which has advocated for juvenile reform. “They’re realizing that we’ve overdone it, and that’s why it’s a bipartisan issue. We’re locking up too many people, and we need to take a more reasonable approach.”

Broward County public defender Gordon Weekes pointed out that direct file is applied unevenly across the state.

“A child engaged in certain conduct in the southern part of the state will be treated differently than a child in the central part of the state or the Panhandle,” Weekes says. “So this is an attempt to have some more uniformity throughout the state with the types of charges that are direct filed.”

Weekes adds that there are also racial disparities. According to Department of Juvenile Justice Statistics, black youths have steadily represented more than 60 percent of direct files.

“When you have a system that is, on its face, race-neutral but the impact is a racially biased result, then you have to look at how it’s being applied,” says Weekes.

Although the number of direct files has gone down statewide, they have increased over the past two years in Palm Beach and Broward courts, with black youths getting the brunt of the increase. In 2013-14, Broward direct filed 186 juveniles; 145 were black. In Palm Beach, 178 juveniles were direct-filed; 126 were black.

State Rep. Dave Kerner (D-Lake Worth) was the lone vote against Edwards’ bill. He says his vote was based on his belief that state attorneys should be allowed discretion in charging juveniles for crimes left off the list of included offenses.

“It’s important for the state attorney to have the discretion to direct-file,” Kerner says. “The attorneys are the ones most knowledgeable about the crime and suspect. From my experience as a police officer and a special prosecutor, if the crime alleged has risen to that level [of being charged as an adult], it’s serious, and prosecutors are elected to be represented by their constituents to carry out justice.” Still, Kerner points out, he does support direct-file reform, “so long as we exempt the most heinous crimes.”

Prosecutors have been resistant to direct-file reform, according to SPLC’s Galloni.

“They have been absolutely belligerent every single year and argue no changes are necessary,” she says. “They’re opposing this vehemently.”

Buddy Jacobs, general counsel for the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, did not comment to New Times for this story.

It remains to be seen whether any of these bills will pass by the time the legislative session ends May 1, but some say the efforts are a good sign.

“When you throw a child in the prison system, they’re not going to have any resources to address the behavior that caused them to get there,” says Weekes. “This is probably some of the most important legislation to be heard in the last ten years involving juveniles.”