STUDY — No Place for A Child: Direct File of Juveniles Comes at a High Cost; Time to Fix Statutes

No Place for A Child:
Direct File of Juveniles Comes at a High Cost; Time to Fix Statutes

Deborrah Brodsky, Director & Cyrus O’Brien, Researcher
The Florida State University Project on Accountable Justice

Sal Nuzzo, Vice President of Policy
The James Madison Institute

Read the full study as a PDF here

At the turn of the 20th century, advocates of an alternate court process for juveniles highlighted problems that existed with prosecuting court-involved children in adult court where they principally faced punishment and surveillance. As an alternative, these advocates established juvenile courts, which reduced the severity of punishment and combined it with rehabilitative regimes and programs aimed at turning children’s lives around. The first Juvenile Court was founded in Chicago and its guiding principles were that childhood should be a protected stage of life, that children were less culpable for their actions than adults, and that children were more receptive to reform and rehabilitation.

Despite the juvenile courts’ founding principle that children are fundamentally different from adults, juvenile courts have historically allowed some children to be prosecuted as adults in adult criminal court. A small minority of children, it was thought, were either not suitable for rehabilitation or were charged with politically-fraught offenses that might destabilize or delegitimize the juvenile court. These rare cases resulted in the occasional prosecution of children in adult court.

Since 2009, more than 12,000 children have been tried as adults in Florida over the last five years1 — 98 percent of these children are “direct filed” in adult court by prosecutors with no hearing, due process, oversight or input from a judge.2 This is because in Florida, prosecutors have virtually unfettered discretion to decide which children to try as adults. Florida currently has the highest number of adult transfers reported of any state.

It would be easy to come to the conclusion that when a child is tried “as an adult,” he or she has committed a heinous crime that requires prison time both as punishment and to protect public safety. What else could justify taking a child out of the juvenile justice system—developed for the very purpose of rehabilitating wayward children—and branding that child for life as a convicted felon?

Yet, we now know that both premises are wrong. Data reported by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice shows that most children tried as adults in Florida are charged with non-violent felony offenses, primarily property and drug crimes, or misdemeanors. Moreover, more than 70 percent of children convicted in adult court are sentenced to probation, not prison, calling into question whether a more serious, adult court transfer was necessary in the first place. These facts are reason for concern and highlight the need for change in Florida’s “direct file” system.

Read the full study as a PDF here



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