Florida sends more children to adult prison than any other state.
An attempt to change that is underway at the Florida Capitol, but skeptical lawmakers nearly killed the reform at its very first hearing last week.
Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach, introduced legislation that “responds to the concerns of defense attorneys, parents and child advocates,” he told the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.
“It reforms the way children are prosecuted as adults in the state of Florida,” he said.
In Florida, there are three ways juveniles can end up in adult courts and face adult sanctions: grand jury indictment, judicial waiver or direct file.
Direct file represents 98 percent of all such cases.
It’s also the near exclusive purview of elected state attorneys, the top law enforcement official and chief prosecutor in a given judicial district.
Directly filing a criminal case against a minor is mandatory if a juvenile is 16 or 17 years old at the time of an alleged qualifying offense, which range from murder, sexual battery and car-jacking, to grand theft auto and drug trafficking. Certain criteria outlined in state law also apply, such as the value of property stolen or whether a weapon was used.
State attorneys also can charge minors as young as 14 years old in adult court if “in the state attorney’s judgment and discretion the public interest requires that adult sanctions be considered or imposed.”
That decision cannot be overruled by a judge.
Judges are allowed to impose juvenile sanctions during sentencing proceedings, but in many instances that is not taking place, according to Powell.
“In some circuits, direct file is used to coerce plea deals,” Powell said.
His bill wouldn’t ban the transfer of children to adult courts. “It narrows the list of eligible offenses to only the worst and most egregious cases, and allows for a judge to be involved,” Powell explained.
“In a 5-year period from about 2008-09, we direct filed 12,000 juveniles into adult courts. Sixty percent of those were for non-violent offenses,” said Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth. “That’s wrong.”
The proposed legislation would eliminate mandatory direct file, and modify the list of discretionary offenses to exclude grand theft, grand theft auto, armed burglary of an unoccupied dwelling and possession of controlled substances.
Juveniles would be prohibited from being transferred to adult courts if they were deemed incompetent, or awaiting competency hearings, and state attorney’s would be required to document in more detail how they arrive at direct file decisions.
The bill also would expand the role of judges in determining whether to send minors to adult courts through the existing judicial waiver process, and would create a new “blended sanction” adult-juvenile sentencing scheme.
Representatives from the Florida Bar Association, the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Children’s Campaign and Bridges of America expressed support for the reforms.
Wansley Walters, former secretary of the Department of Juvenile Justice under Republican Gov. Rick Scott, also supports the bill.
But there was plenty of disagreement.
Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Jacksonville, voted against the reform over funding concerns.
“I’m kind of scared to vote on something that has such a large impact without … knowing how much it’s going to cost,” Bean said.
A similar attempt to amend the direct file process in 2016, would have required $35.7 million a year for new juvenile detention beds, according to the Department of Juvenile Justice.
A staff analysis estimated about 644 minors would have been sent to DJJ facilities annually instead of going to adult prisons.
‘Bad hardened criminals’
Arthur “Buddy” Jacobs, offered the most direct opposition. Jacobs, a lobbyist, served as general counsel for the State Attorneys of Florida for 47 years.
“We’re not going after anyone but the really hardened and bad folks,” he said to the committee.
“It’s important to know how we got here,” Jacobs explained. “Florida was rampant in juvenile crime. We had juveniles in Miami carjacking tourists’ cars and folks getting killed. At a rest stop on I-10, just east of here, we had some folks that were killed at a rest stop by some teenagers out of Tallahassee.”
“These are not Sunday school going-to-prayer-meeting young people. These are bad hardened criminals that wreak havoc over the state of Florida,” Jacobs said.
Sen. Dennis Baxley, the committee’s vice chair, voted against the bill.
“This is very tough for me because I like the direction we’ve gone with juvenile justice in diverting young people from getting deeper into the system,” said Baxley.
“There are times when this needs to happen, apparently,” he added. “I’m not ready to pass this in its current form.”
With three weeks before the formal legislative session begins in March, the narrow 4-3 favorable vote is a bad sign for the bill’s supporters. It will only face more opposition in the GOP-controlled legislature.
Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, was the only Republican on the committee to vote in favor of the bill.
The measure will appear next in the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee, which is chaired by Bean.