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Are Florida Kids More Violent? Or Are the Florida Courts?

Some of you may have heard this morning's report on WLRN about the U.S. Supreme Court case that will determine on what basis it's just to put a child in prison for life. There seems to be a lot of violent crime committed by children in South Florida, but I was still shocked by this detail:

Of the 109 juveniles serving life terms for non-homicide offenses across the country, 70 percent are in the Sunshine State.
Currently, Broward County has at least two high-profile juvenile cases: a 15-year-old from Coral Springs who allegedly stabbed his 14-year-old brother to death during a fight over computer volume. And the Michael Brewer case, in which five Deerfield Beach boys, ranging in age from 13 to 16 are accused of setting the 15-year-old boy on fire.

These are terrifying crimes, but that's not entirely the point. The real issue is whether a child should be held accountable in an adult way for a crime that

he may not have the capacity to fully understand. It's clear that Florida's aggressive stance on charging children as adults has got the court's attention. The NPR report traces those policies back to the early 1990s, when they were a reaction to a juvenile crime rate. The report quotes Bryan Stevenson, an attorney for the juvenile who received a life sentence that's at issue in the Supreme Court's case.

What Florida did was to make it easier to try youngsters as adults, and at the same time, the state also increased the number of non-homicide crimes for which an adult can be sentenced to life without parole.

"Florida has no minimum age for trying a child as an adult," observes Stevenson. "We could be talking about a 6-year-old or a 10-year-old or a 12-year-old, and we think this is an instance where the court has to step in."

The piece also quotes a Louisiana's attorney aeneral who insists, predictably, that this is the state's right but that also argues somewhat improbably that tougher laws create a more powerful deterrent. What child consults his state's laws in advance of committing an armed robbery, rape, or murder?

No, the most persuasive point the state is liable to make in its defense is that these children are monsters who simply can't be trusted with their freedom. Of course, that leads to more questions about the state of the juvenile justice and prison systems.

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Thomas Francis

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