George Gibbs Center for Economic Prosperity

Ed⁠i⁠⁠t⁠or⁠i⁠al: Don’⁠t⁠ ⁠t⁠ry so many k⁠i⁠ds as adul⁠t⁠s

By: Guest Author / 2016

Punishment is the last and the least effective instrument in the hands of the legislator for the prevention of crime.

So declared John Ruskin, the influential British social thinker.

Evidently, theFlorida Legislatureis no fan of Ruskin because our state leads the nation in shifting young suspects to the adult court system and locking them up in adult hellholes.

Hopefully, that trend is about to change.

Bills are moving forward in the Florida House and Senate that would limit the ability of prosecutors to charge juvenile offenders as adults.

SB 314, filed by Senate Judiciary ChairmanMiguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, would require judges to sign off on juvenile-to-adult court transfers. The House version — HB 129, filed by Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation; Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-Treasure Island, and Rep. Bobby Powell, D-Riviera Beach — puts some limits on prosecutors, but doesn't require a review by judges.

Similar measures gained traction in subcommittees last year, but none crossed the finish line because of the Legislature's unceremonious end. Lawmakers can't allow a repeat performance this year. It's an injustice to forever brand youngsters as felons, given the system's capricious nature.

Extreme punishments for juveniles often don't make sense — for the kids, taxpayers or public safety. Blame Florida's misguided record on what's called direct file, which gives prosecutors unbridled discretion to transfer 16 – and 17-year-olds charged with felonies to adult court. They also can charge as adults 14- and 15-year-olds who commit certain felonies.

These aren't ax murderers we're talking about. More than 60 percent of the 12,000-plus juvenile suspects tried as adults in the past five years were charged with nonviolent felonies. Only 2.7 percent faced murder indictments.

Due process is the hallmark of our justice system, and I think there has to be checks and balances, said Wansley Walters, a former secretary of Florida's Department of Juvenile Justice, I absolutely believe that our society has to have that with children.

Yet prosecutors armed with unfettered power largely bypass judicial waiver — a hearing where a judge settles the question of whether a juvenile should be tried as an adult. Not only does direct file bypass an impartial arbiter, it plunges youngsters into a system that favors punishment over rehabilitation.

Florida should reverse course and adopt an approach grounded more firmly in fact and reason, noted a 2014Human Rights Watchreport on direct file.

A bipartisan coalition that ranges from the Southern Poverty Law Center to The James Madison Institute, a Tallahassee-based free-market think tank, is advocating to do just that.

The report suggests Florida dump direct file and allow judges to rule on juvenile-to-adult transfers with a strong presumption that all children 17 and under should remain in the juvenile system.

Regrettably, the tide changed in 1994 with the debut of Florida's direct file law, spurred by social scientists who warned of violent, uncontrollable youth, dubbed superpredators.

Nostradamus the scientists we're not. Direct file belongs in the '90s dustbin with that epic failure of a prophecy.

As it stands, Florida is among only 14 states and the District of Columbia that sanction direct file, and one of four that ban judicial review of such cases. Not that Florida should bask in its exclusivity.

Under direct file, children are often pressured to take plea deals and wind up in adult prisons where they're robbed of age-appropriate programs and vulnerable to sexual abuse and inmate-on-inmate violence. When they get out, they are 34 percent more likely to wind up back in jail.

Bad enough. Worse, is the lack of consistency. Transfer rates vary widely from county to county. Juvenile suspects' lives can hang on the whims of prosecutors or the prevailing political winds.

Or skin color. Though 27.2 percent of children busted for crime are black, 51.4 percent of youths transferred to adult court are black.

It's time to return more youthful offenders to the confines of juvenile court — where almost all of them belong.

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