For more than a century, children who commit crimes have been treated differently than adults, with separate juvenile courts, detention centers and programs designed to treat and rehabilitate youthful offenders. With a rise in violent crimes among juveniles and doubts about the efficiency of rehabilitation programs, however, has come public and political pressure to treat youthful offenders like adults. A number of states, like Florida, have authorized direct filing of juveniles into the adult system if they are charged with certain crimes, along with mandatory minimum sentences for first-time offenders.
Florida allows its state prosecutors sole discretion to transfer juveniles to the adult system. It also has a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence for juveniles convicted as adults for the first time. A 14-year-old child can be tried as an adult, with children of any age eligible for the adult system if they commit an offense subject to life imprisonment or death.
Once convicted of a crime in an adult court, the mark on a juvenile's record can be permanent, affecting his or her ability to go to school or find suitable employment. In juvenile court, a juvenile's records would be expunged after age 24 or 26 in some cases.
For many experts, direct filing is not working. Juvenile offenders receive few services in the adult system. When they are released, their recidivism rate is high. Furthermore, state attorneys have discretion to randomly transfer children to adult court without accountability.
The Legal Needs of Children Committee in Florida has recommended changes. They want to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for juveniles convicted as adults for the first time and for judges to have the sole power to order transfers. It also wants judicial discretion to waive other mandatory sentences for juveniles in adult court.
The Committee also recommended repealing direct filing of juveniles into adult court and giving judges more sentencing options such as combining juvenile and adult sanctions. The flexibility in treating and sentencing juveniles would at least give juvenile offenders an opportunity to receive needed treatment and a second chance.
Legislation has also been proposed that would allow a judicial challenge to any direct filing, although there would be a presumption that the prosecutor's decision to direct file was correct. This and other measures would offer uniformity and flexibility in the decision-making process, affording juveniles a chance to turn their lives around before it becomes too late.
Related Resource: The Florida Bar News "Are Too Many Kids Prosecuted As Adults?"