What happens to children after their criminal cases are referred to adult courts?
It’s hard to say, exactly.
A new legislative report says that tracking court rulings and related judicial sanctions — such as probation, adult jail or prison — for juveniles directly filed into Florida’s adult court system is limited by a lack of accessible records.
State prosecutors have referred 7,261 juveniles to adult courts since 2012. Last year was the lowest annual amount, at 1,178, with the most common alleged crime being burglary.
Because there’s no single source of information linking juvenile cases to adult criminal justice outcomes, auditors from the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability attempted to match data from various state agencies to find out.
The process was described as “very difficult” and a potential hindrance to the Legislature’s ability to monitor the direct file process, which represents 99 percent of all juvenile cases heard in adult courts.
Despite initially housing direct-filed children, the Department of Juvenile Justice does not have complete information on adult convictions and sanctions. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement does, but it doesn’t identify direct-filed juveniles in its electronic records. To obtain complete information, data must be cross referenced between DJJ and FDLE.
“If a direct-filed child receives a judicial sanction of adult probation, but then violates probation and receives a sanction of adult prison, the data would only show the prison sentence. This is problematic for analysis,” the report states.
The Department of Corrections has limitations, as well. The department maintains records only for children entering the state prison system, not children sent to adult jails.
The auditors say misspellings, missing and inaccurate information also inhibited them from matching records.
An attempt to match records using identifiers such as social security numbers, full names, dates of birth and demographic characteristics yielded less than an 80 percent success rate among the 1,552 direct-filed children in fiscal year 2012-13. Moreover, FDLE arrest records could be tied to only 50 percent of the group’s judicial records, and about 22 percent didn’t have a valid social security number on file with the Juvenile Justice Department.
Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Christina Daly said she agrees with the report’s findings, and added that additional staff may be needed to improve recording keeping.
“Until consistency issues are resolved, the Department would experience the same matching issues experienced by OPPAGA,” she said in a response letter.
Directly filing a criminal case against a minor is mandatory if a juvenile is 16 or 17 years old at the time of a qualifying offense. Such offenses range from from murder, sexual battery and car-jacking to drug trafficking and grand theft auto. Certain criteria outlined in state law, such as the value of stolen property or whether a weapon was used, also apply.
State attorneys also have the judgment and discretion to bring charges against minors in adult court. The report indicates that discretionary direct files are declining, while mandatory direct files are on the rise.
State attorneys consider three main factors when deciding whether to direct file a case: age of the child at time of offense, type of offense committed and prior offense record.
Last year, the average age of first-time direct-filed juveniles was 16.4 years old, with a range of 12 years to 17 years of age.
William Patrick is a Florida reporter for Watchdog.org. Contact him [email protected] and @WmPatFL.