George Gibbs Center for Economic Prosperity

Ed⁠i⁠⁠t⁠or⁠i⁠al: Keep ch⁠i⁠ldren ou⁠t⁠ of adul⁠t⁠ pr⁠i⁠sons

By: Guest Author / 2017

Prosecuting children as adults for nonviolent offenses isn't being tough on crime. Quite the contrary — it just makes it more likely they'll commit more serious crimes when they grow older.

A bill introduced in the Florida Senate, SB 192, would remove certain nonviolent offenses from eligibility for adult charges. It would also create judicial oversight over prosecutors transferring juvenile cases to adult courts.

Scott McCoy, policy counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center, notes that recidivism rates are higher for children prosecuted as adults that those adjudicated in the juvenile justice system. The legislation would benefit public safety and the children involved, he said.

We're not satisfied with the notion that we should wad up these kids and throw them in the trash, he said.

More children are prosecuted as adults in Florida than in any other state, according to a 2016 study by the James Madison Institute, a Tallahassee-based think tank. More than 13,000 children have been prosecuted in the state's adult criminal justice system since 2009.

A big reason is the virtually unchecked power of prosecutors to transfer cases involving children as young as 14 to adult courts. About 98 percent of these cases are direct filed by prosecutors without a judge's input, the law center's research has found.

For the past few years, versions of legislation to change the direct-file system has been introduced in the Legislature but failed to pass. The latest bill was approved last month by the Senate Criminal Justice committee and is now slated to be heard by a criminal justice appropriations subcommittee, which includes state Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, among its members.

Given Perry's support for programs that help rehabilitate inmates, we hope he sees the value in keeping people out of adult prisons in the first place. The smart-on-crime approach should appeal across party lines as a way of saving money spent on prisons, while ensuring those who make mistakes as children aren't tagged with convictions that make it harder for them to land jobs and be productive citizens.

The bill would make several changes, including requiring 16- and 17-year-olds arrested for crimes such as possession of a controlled substance, burglary of an unoccupied dwelling and grand theft to be prosecuted as juveniles. McCoy notes that grand theft involves stealing something stolen worth more than $300 — meaning that teens could face adult prison for taking an iPhone.

Some state attorneys have shown greater discretion in prosecuting juveniles as adults than some of their peers. Still, some opposed previous versions of the legislation for not allowing prosecutors to use their judgment in these cases. But the current measure would simply require that state attorneys document their reason for adult transfers and allow the defendant to request a hearing to decide whether they can return to juvenile court.

Keeping children in the juvenile system ensures they have access to the education programs than help prevent them from committing crimes again, rather than housing them with hardened criminals who only steer them to similar lives.