Children may be the future, but Florida is putting its future behind bars. A new report from the Human Rights Watch blasts the state for charging children as adults more than any other state in the nation, and says that far too often, the decision is arbitrary.
Florida law allows prosecutors sole discretion over whether to charge a minor as an adult, and not even a judge can overturn the decision. The report claims this practice has led to an unusually large number of Florida's children being treated as adults in the criminal justice system.
"The children caught up in the 'direct file' law cannot legally vote, drink, or buy cigarettes in the state of Florida," Alba Morales, author of the report, said in a statement. "Yet they can be tried as adults with no judge evaluating that decision, and branded as felons for life."
The report also shows a troubling trend of racial disparity. In every judicial circuit in the state, black youths are tried as adults at a much higher rate than white youths in violent cases and drug offenses.
"Statewide, Florida is also treating its black male youth more harshly than their white counterparts," the report states. "Black boys make up 27.2 percent of children arrested for crime but account for 51.4 percent of youth sent to adult court; whereas white boys make up 28 percent of children arrested and account for only 24.4 percent of youth tried in adult court."
Even when controlling for the kinds of crimes committed by black and white youths, the disparity remains. In one district that covers portions of Tampa Bay, only 8.8 of white boys arrested for drugs were tried as adults. In contrast, 30.1 percent of black boys arrested for drugs were tried as adults.
And it's not like these kids are all violent criminals. In fact, 60 percent of cases of minors tried as adults in Florida in 2012-13 were for nonviolent crimes.
One Miami public defender told researchers he believes the high rates of trying children as adults is part of legal strategy by prosecutors.
"The moment they announce intent to direct file, the kid coughs up a plea," he said. Minors are often also urged to accept a plea deal by their lawyers early into the process just to avoid being tried as an adult.
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However, interestingly, Miami-Dade has the lowest percentage of children charged under the "direct file" as adults that end up in adult jail. Only 11.9 percent of the such cases in the 11th Judicial Circuit, which cover all of and only Miami-Dade, ended with the child serving time in adult prison or jail. Up in Jacksonville's Fourth District, the rate was 74.3 percent.
HRW urges Florida leaders to repeal the law that allows prosecutors sole discretion over the matter and warns that a child's fate could depend upon the prosecutor. If the child is convicted of a felony charge, it could stick with him for the rest of his life.
"Florida's direct file law is not effectively serving public safety. Indeed, recent studies link transfers of juveniles to adult court to increases, not decreases, in recidivism," the report says. "And, as this report shows, 'direct file' is having negative, at times devastating, effects on the lives of thousands of children and their families."