“Juvenile justice: Time for change
(Originally published in the Tallahassee Democrat)
December 16, 2015When disparate voices agree on something, it’s probably worth giving the idea a good hearing.That’s the case with Florida’s “direct file” system for transferring juvenile offenders to adult courts for trials. It’s not a glamorous law-and-order issue, not going to get anybody re-elected or defeated, but it is probably one of the most important things our legislators will consider when they convene next month.An unusual coalition is behind the effort to get judges involved in deciding which juveniles deserve to be treated like grown-up criminals. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a liberal advocacy group, and the James Madison Institute, a conservative Tallahassee policy-study organization, have joined with public defenders across the state and some other advocacy groups to change a system that now puts a heavy prosecutorial thumb on the scales of justice.There are three general ways juveniles get charged as adults — judicial waiver, indictment and “direct file” of charges by a state attorney. The latter method was born of a horrifying 1994 eruption of juvenile crime, and it lets prosecutors put teenage offenders before circuit judges, usually with plea deals that can still result in assignment to the juvenile or youthful-offender system.Juvenile cases involving burglaries, drug offenses and some teen-sex cases could benefit from having a judge — not a prosecution-minded state attorney — decide which young offenders need to be kept in the minor league of the judicial system.Direct file usually doesn’t involve a court hearing, presentation of evidence or legal arguments. Prosecutors have discretion to charge 16- and 17-year-olds with adult felonies.
Public defenders tell juveniles and their families what they’re up against: Plead out and get sentenced as a juvenile, or take your chances in adult court and maybe wind up at Florida State Prison.Florida leads the nation in moving juvenile cases to circuit court. Again, we’re not talking about armed robbery and murder here — more than 60 percent of juveniles whose cases were moved to adult court over the last five years were charged with non-violent crimes.This isn’t good for anybody. The Department of Corrections doesn’t really correct adult offenders, but at least they have to be there. Prison will only assure that young offenders come out worse, much worse, than they went in. That’s why conservatives like the JMI analysts are on board with proposals to require hearings before a judge, rather than letting state attorneys use direct file as a cudgel to force plea bargains.And like so many other factors in the court system, direct file works against minority and poor defendants. A kid who can afford private counsel can probably work out a deal early in the proceedings.State Reps. Katie Edwards, D-Sunrise, Kathleen Peters, R-Pinellas, and Bobby Powell, D-Palm Beach, have a bill (HB 129) to get judges involved in these decisions. Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, has a companion measure (SB 314) in the Senate.Suffice to say, these are not wild-eyed, soft-on-crime liberals. The bills have cleared the House and Senate criminal justice committees, in differing forms.Still, prospects for passage are uncertain at best. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville, is a former prosecutor and sides with the state attorneys in wanting to keep their direct-file authority. After the criminal-justice and justice appropriations committees, the bills have to get through the big judiciary committees, where McBurney presides.Second Circuit State Attorney Willie Meggs makes a strong argument for the status quo. First, he said, innocent defendants are not pleading guilty and taking a juvenile sentence; second, he said judges shouldn’t be making prosecutorial decisions — any more than they should be advising the public defender.“The thing about it is, they want to give the judges the authority and ability to make that determination on what the state files,” Meggs said in an interview. “Think about that for a second. Who is it, among the state attorney, the police and the judge, who knows the least about the case? It would be the judge — if the judge knows anything about the case, he couldn’t be the judge in the case.”Meggs’ experience notwithstanding, we think judges can be involved in the direct-file decision, without showing bias to either side. In cases deserving aggressive, full-bore prosecution, they could still pass defendants on to the adult system; but when justice should be tempered with mercy, a disinterested jurist would be a better arbiter than a state attorney who — by definition — comes at every case from the punishment side of the legal ledger.The Tallahassee Democrat is a Gannett newspaper.Article: http://www.news-press.com/story/opinion/2015/12/16/juvenile-justice-time-change/77433668/