George Gibbs Center for Economic Prosperity

Orlando Sen⁠t⁠⁠i⁠nel — Change law ⁠t⁠o ⁠t⁠ry fewer k⁠i⁠ds as adul⁠t⁠s: Where We S⁠t⁠and

By: The James Madison Institute / December 18, 2015

Orlando Sentinel
“Change law to try fewer kids as adults: Where We Stand”
December 18, 2015Children’s wish lists are being checked twice as Christmas is just around the corner. Soon, too, looms the 2016 Florida legislative session.The Legislature convenes after Santa’s global fly-by. However, lawmakers won’t need a team of flying reindeer, but rather the political will to deliver the perfect present for thousands of wayward Florida youth who are needlessly shunted to adult prison: restricting prosecutors’ power to charge minors as adults.That ability is known as “direct file.” It’s a legal option, born out of the early ’90s “superpredator” hysteria that empowers prosecutors with unchecked authority to charge 16 and 17-year-olds charged with felonies as adults. They also can charge as adults 14- and 15-year-olds who commit certain felonies.In fact, 98 percent of juvenile cases shifted to adult court in Florida result from direct files, according to legislative research. This wouldn’t necessarily be an issue if prosecutors used their unfettered discretion to lock up young Zodiac killers in adult prison. Yet, prosecutors handed out murder indictments to only 2.7 percent of the more than 12,000 juvenile suspects shifted to the adult court system in the past five years. Less than 40 percent of those youthful offenders allegedly had committed violent felonies, according to a report last year by Human Rights Watch.With any luck, this opaque legal practice soon may come to an ignominiously overdue end — if the enthusiasm by which the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee unanimously embraced House Bill 129 is any indicator. The bipartisan measure would, among other improvements, narrow the cases where prosecutors could transfer kids to adult court.”Trying children as adults results in greater recidivism,” Sal Nuzzo of the free-market James Madison Institute — part of a right-left coalition battling direct file — told the House panel. “We send children into adult institutions where they become, more than likely, better criminals — thus increasing the long-term economic costs through incarceration, social services and lower employability.”In other words, excessive use of this misguided “tough on crime” strategy actually undermines public safety. And it ends up costing the public more money.Florida is among only 14 states that permit direct file, and Florida uses it more than any other state. More disturbing, the Sunshine State is among four states that keep the public in the dark with bans on judicial review of direct-file cases.Florida’s iron-hand approach metastasized in 1994 out of an exaggerated response to a surge in violent youth crimes across the country. Some researchers confidently predicted America would be deluged by a flash flood of “superpredators.” The rains never came; yet the dark cloud remains over Florida’s dealings with troubled youth.Human Rights Watch found that geography often dictates if prosecutors choose to try youthful offenders as adults. Transfer rates vary for county to county. A youth’s fate can hinge on which way the political winds are blowing.And minorities, not surprisingly, are disproportionately direct-filed. For example, Human Rights Watch found that blacks made up 27.2 percent of adolescents arrested, but accounted for 51.4 percent of those moved to adult court.There youngsters often are bullied to take plea deals that end with a stint in adult lockup, where they’re targets for sexual abuse and set up to be repeat customers, deprived of age-appropriate rehabilitative and redirection programs. They’re treated like mature, hardened criminals, when most are still kids capable of turning their lives around.Ideally, the Legislature would go beyond the current language in HB 129, and leave the decision of whether to try juveniles as adults with judges, who would reserve that outcome for only the most serious cases.The age of the mythical superpredator was the age of hysteria for juvenile justice in Florida. It’s time legislators drag the state into the age of reason.Article: