Friday, March 13, 2015

Diversity Committee: Charging Juveniles as Adults and its Disproportionate Effect on Minority Children

By Stevie Swanson

Florida is one of 15 states (plus the District of Columbia) with direct file statutes. Under Florida’s direct file law, prosecutors have the ability to try juveniles as adults. § 985.557, Fla. Stat. (2014). The direct file process allows a state attorney to use his or her “judgment and discretion” to transfer children age 16 or 17 (at the time of the alleged offense) to adult court when the public interest requires that “adult sanctions be considered or imposed.” Id.

Not everyone is aware that prosecutors wield this power. Approximately 98 percent of juvenile cases transferred to adult court in Florida are a result of the direct file statute. Human Rights Watch, supra note 1, at 19. Florida has the dubious distinction of having transferred more children into the adult system than any other state.  This is problematic for several reasons.

The statistical data indicates that the discretionary nature of Florida’s direct file statute has a disturbing, disproportionate impact on minority children. Human Rights Watch analyzed Florida data from fiscal years 2008-09 to 2012-13. It discovered that, while only 27.2 percent of arrested youth were black males, 51.4 percent of the youth transferred into the adult system were black males. Human Rights Watch, supra note 1, at 29 tbl.2. By comparison, during the same time period, 28 percent of the total youth arrested were white males, but only 24.4 percent of them were direct filed. Id.

The Thirteenth Judicial Circuit (Hillsborough County) had the highest transfer of children to adult court from fiscal years 2009-10 to 2012-13. For the 2013-14 fiscal year, the Thirteenth Circuit was ranked third in the state behind the Seventeenth and Sixth Judicial Circuits. In the Thirteenth Circuit, 36.3 percent of the youth arrested in the fiscal year 2013-14 were black males, while 56.4 percent (57/101) of the youth transferred to adult court were black males. During the same time period in the Thirteenth Circuit, 20.1 percent of the youth arrested were white males, and only 12.9 percent (13/101) of those direct filed were white males.

Transferring juveniles into the adult system is both detrimental to the public and devastating to the children transferred. It is harmful to the public because “transferring youth to the adult criminal system is more likely to aggravate recidivism than to stop it.” Children remaining in the juvenile system are less likely to commit crimes upon release. Juveniles in adult facilities are at increased risk of being victimized. Children in adult prisons are more likely to be physically and sexually assaulted than those in juvenile facilities.

Juveniles also lose the ability to receive much needed services when incarcerated in adult facilities. For example, children in the juvenile system receive educational and vocational services, behavioral and mental health treatment services, and substance abuse and sex offender treatment services, when needed. Circuit Judge Ralph Stoddard, Direct File Transfer to Adult Court: Juvenile Sanctions for Youth Prosecuted as Adults, Powerpoint presentation at Conference on Continuing Judicial Education for Circuit Court Judges in August 2013. Denying these vital educational and rehabilitative services to children transferred into the adult system makes them less productive members of society upon re-entry from the penal system.

The impact of being sentenced as an adult has lifelong ramifications. Children who have been transferred to the adult system face impediments to voting; obtaining gainful employment, public assistance, and driver’s licenses; and preventing access to their criminal records. It is encouraging that direct file numbers are on the decline and that the Thirteenth Circuit is no longer ranked first in the state for direct files, but it is deeply troubling that the percentage of minorities direct filed is increasing. If, as they say, the children are our future, then shouldn’t we be encouraging their rehabilitation through the juvenile system, rather than dooming them to victimization and a lifetime of lost potential in the adult system?