TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A Florida House panel on Tuesday approved a measure that would limit the ability of prosecutors to charge juveniles as adults -- as supporters vowed to press for further reforms as the issue moves through the Legislature.
The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee unanimously backed a bill (HB 129), which is aimed at keeping younger teens who have committed non-violent crimes out of adult prisons. In particular, it addresses a legal practice known as "direct file," by which Florida prosecutors may file adult charges against juvenile offenders.
Such direct files account for 98 percent of the juvenile cases transferred to adult court in Florida, according to a staff analysis of the bill.
"Trying children as adults results in greater recidivism," Sal Nuzzo of the James Madison Institute, a conservative think tank, told the House panel. "We send children into adult institutions where they become, more than likely, better criminals -- thus increasing the long-term economic costs through incarceration, social services and lower employability."
A 2014 report by Human Rights Watch said Florida transfers more children out of the juvenile system and into adult courts than any other state. The report found that more than 12,000 juvenile crime suspects were transferred to Florida's adult court system between 2009 and 2014. More than 60 percent of those juveniles had been charged with non-violent felonies.
The Human Rights Watch study also noted racial disparities in the way direct file was used and that the practice was applied inconsistently throughout the state's 20 judicial circuits.
Nuzzo said that creates "a dangerous constitutional due-process issue," because different state attorneys apply direct file differently from circuit to circuit. Some use it more, some less.
"The decision on whether or not to charge a child as an adult rests not on the crime committed necessarily, as much as it rests on what Zip code the child commits the alleged offense in," Nuzzo said. "And we feel that justice by geography is not a constitutionally viable principle."
Before passing the bill, however, the Criminal Justice Subcommittee approved changes that scaled it back. That included effectively gutting a proposed requirement that would have led to judges deciding whether to send juveniles to adult court for many potential offenses.
After the changes, the bill would allow state attorneys to use direct file for juveniles between the ages of 16 and 18 when in the prosecutors' "judgment and discretion, the public interest requires that adult sanctions be considered." That discretion would apply in cases involving 21 offenses, from murder to lewd or lascivious acts committed in the presence of someone under the age of 16.
Supporters of the measure said they would reluctantly accept the compromise to move the bill along.
The bill was filed by Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-Treasure Island, and Rep. Bobby Powell, D-Riviera Beach.
Their original proposal would have created a two-tier system for direct-file, allowing prosecutors to charge offenders as adults if they are between the ages of 16 and 18 and have been charged with certain serious and violent felonies. But juveniles between ages 14 and 15 could only have been direct-filed if charged with murder, manslaughter or sexual battery. Prosecutors would still have been able to petition a judge to charge a juvenile of any age as an adult.
Those provisions remain in the Senate version of the bill (SB 314), filed by Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami. That bill passed the Senate Criminal Justice Committee last month.
The debate comes as Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday announced a drop in the juvenile crime rate. For fiscal year 2014-2015, according to the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, juvenile arrests statewide dropped 4 percent. That resulted in a five year decline of 32 percent -- the lowest number of juvenile arrests since 1984.