Florida leads the nation in charging juveniles as adults -- a result of the state's controversial Direct File law, which gives prosecutors the power to charge juveniles as adults whenever they choose. Experts say this unchecked power causes myriad problems, ranging from extreme sentences to forced pleas -- and Rep. Katie Edwards, a Plantation Democrat, wants to change that.
"The only ones that are hesitant to join in this reform effort are the prosecutors because, quite frankly, they're the ones who hold all the cards and don't want to give up that power," Edwards tells New Times.
The Sunshine State has long been criticized for having an archaic system when it comes to dealing with juvenile offenders. Several organizations, including Human Rights Watch, which issued a 110-page report on Florida's Direct File practice, have singled out Florida for treating kids in the criminal justice system as adults. In fact, the HRW report is what inspired Edwards to file HB 783.
"After I read that report, I began talking with public defenders and other interest groups and found there was a great deal of interest in changing the law," Edwards says.
"The mantra of the older, hardened attorney is to punish, punish, punish," Edwards says. "They're not used to thinking outside the box and look for ways to rehabilitate a first-time offender and break the cycle of lawlessness, poverty, lack of education, whatever it may be that led that individual to have that brush with law enforcement."
The Human Rights Watch report, titled "Branded for Life," explained how children around the state were prosecuted as adults through the Direct File system for crimes ranging from stealing items from school to more serious crimes like assault.
The way Direct File works is simple: Prosecutors can charge kids as adults whenever they want. And when they do so, they are able to hide all evidence against a child suspect until he or she agrees to be charged as an adult or pleads guilty. According to a Miami-Dade public defender who spoke to New Times, this often results in a forced plea from kids who want to avoid having to spend time in adult prison. But those kids who still want to exercise their right to plead not guilty must subject themselves to the adult criminal justice system, which could result in prison time as well as a criminal record.
While Edwards is blunt about reforming the system in a way that would enforce a more thoughtful approach to charging juveniles as kids, she's not completely against charging kids as adults. In some cases, like violent crimes, she says it might be necessary -- and her bill proposal cites only "certain conditions."
Here's Edwards' bill:
HB 783: Charging Youths as Adults in Criminal Proceedings
Charging Youths as Adults in Criminal Proceedings; Specifies offenses that allow state attorney to file information for specified juvenile offenders; prohibits filing informations for juveniles with certain conditions; specifies effects of direct file; prohibits certain juvenile offenders from being transferred to adult court; requires DJJ to collect specified data & make report; specifies minimum age for indictment of juvenile for certain offenses; prohibits certain juvenile offenders from being transferred to adult court; deletes provisions relating to sentencing of juveniles as adults for certain offenses; revises provisions relating to transfer of other pending felony charges when child has been indicted; revises factors to be considered in determining whether to impose juvenile or adult sanctions for violations of law by juvenile; requires court to consider specified reports in hearing on such sentencing; revises provisions relating to sentencing alternatives.
Edwards says she doesn't expect a lot of pushback from politicians who ride the "tough on crime" wave that has been in style since the early '90s, when charging juveniles as adults became fashionable.
"A lot of folks have interest in this and recognize that we need to make reform to the Direct File system," Edwards says, adding that several organizations, including the Catholic Congress, are for reform.
Florida, which has no minimum age for the practice, has officially prosecuted juveniles as adults 14,000 times since 2009, according to Department of Juvenile Justice statistics. However, the number of children charged as adults has dropped significantly since 2009 -- at a rate of about 51 percent.
A large percentage of these charges are burglary -- with 544 juveniles charged as adults for this crime in 2013-14.
Edwards says alternative programs should be used in more counties across the state, and her bill would force prosecutors to look for such methods.