Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Report Shows Florida Prosecutors Abuse Direct File Power

By Chris Costner
CFYJ Fellow

In a recent report titled “Branded for Life,” the Human Rights Watch condemned the state of Florida’s outdated policies of allowing juveniles to be moved to the adult court through “direct file.” This policy allows a prosecutor to have unfettered discretion to move any juvenile offender under 18 into the adult court.  “Florida transfers more children out of the juvenile system and into adult court than any other state. In the last five years alone, more than 12,000 juvenile crime suspects in Florida were transferred to the adult court system.” Roughly 98% of Florida youth in adult courts are there because of the arbitrary decisions of prosecutors stemming from this “direct file” process. 

The key issue with this law is that there is no chance for a judge to review a prosecutor’s decision, even if the case is clearly appropriate for a juvenile court. In addition, there are vast differences between the decisions and punishments comparing the twenty judicial circuits in Florida. What might be just a juvenile crime in one circuit, may be prosecuted as a serious adult offense in another.
The Human Rights Watch asserts that sending youth to adult courts is harmful not only to the individual youth, but society as a whole. Studies have shown that trying youth in the adult criminal justice system leads to higher recidivism rates compared to children that stay in the juvenile justice system. Even more alarming is the fact that clear racial bias plays a role in which cases get sent into the adult courts.   

Research tells us that children, as compared to adults, have lower levels of self-control and judgment, and youth also are still developing in their brains and bodies. The juvenile justice system recognizes this and is focused on rehabilitation and education, while the adult criminal justice system stresses punishment. Children are at a much higher risk of being victims of violence, sexual-abuse, and suicide in adult prisons and jails. For children convicted of a felony in an adult court, they face substantial restrictions on their employment once they re-renter society, and also lose their right to vote. Human Rights Watch stressed the necessity to abolish the “direct file” law and to rely on a qualified juvenile judge to make the decision of whether or not a child should face adult prosecution. 
There is a way to hold youth accountable for their crimes without subjecting them to arbitrary and capricious treatment. CLICK HERE to read the full report.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

New Research Confirms 30-Year Trend of Poor Outcomes and Nearly Exclusive Impact on Minority Youth from Automatic Transfer to Adult Court

Today the Juvenile Justice Initiative released a new report, "Automatic Adult Prosecution of Children in Cook County, Illinois, 2010-2012".  The report finds that only one white youth was among the 257 Cook County children charged with crimes requiring an automatic transfer to adult court in a recent three-year study period, and most of those children live in predominantly minority communities in the south and west sides of Chicago.  

Racial disparities are not the only problem.  Half the children end up convicted of lesser offenses – offenses that would not have triggered adult trial if charged appropriately at the outset.  These poor outcomes and racial disparities have been consistently demonstrated in studies over the 30-year lifetime of these automatic transfer policies.

“Illinois is one of only 14 states to give this kind of extreme power to prosecutors, and we found the Cook County state’s attorney employed it almost exclusively in cases involving minority defendants,” said Elizabeth Clarke, President of the Juvenile Justice Initiative (JJI).  “With the stroke of a pen, prosecutors can transform a child into an adult.  Time and time again it happens to children of color in Chicago.”

Under the state’s automatic transfer law in effect during the study of 2010 through 2012, anyone age 15 or 16 charged with certain felonies automatically bypasses the more rehabilitation-focused juvenile court, and there is no judicial review or appeal of a prosecutor’s decision to try a child in adult court.  Since the time of the study, the age of juvenile court jurisdiction in Illinois was raised to 17, and now 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds can face automatic transfer to adult court when charged with murder, aggravated criminal sexual assault, and several other felony charges.

To review the full report, please visit here.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Maryland Adds Another Win for Youth Justice

By Kara Aanenson 
Just Kids Partnership

Last week, Just Kids Partnership wrapped up its legislative session, passing two reforms that help youth charged as adults in Maryland. After a quick 90 day session, Maryland advocates built on the momentum from the 2013 legislative session, by getting two bills passed based on recommendations from the Task Force on Juvenile Court Jurisdiction which studied the issue of charging youth as adults in Maryland last year.

Just Kids attending the Governor's public signing of SB515/HB1295

On April 12, Just Kids advocates attended the Governor's signing of SB515/HB1295. Adding another win for Maryland youth. The bill allows youth who have been previously charged as adults but transferred back to the juvenile court and then adjudicated delinquent, the opportunity to ask for a transfer hearing back to juvenile court if they are arrested for a subsequent offense.  Under current law those youth were not allowed to have a judge review their case and had to stay in the adult system.  This bill allows a child to request a hearing and have a judge review the case and make a decision on what court should handle the case.

Another win for the books is the passing of SB 718/ HB 589, which requires the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention to conduct population forecasts on the number of youth charged as adults and held in local correctional facilities, for the next three years. The forecast will include the average daily population along with the average length of stay for youth in local correctional facilities. Our hope is that this data will support our position that this small population of youth tried as adults can be accommodated in the juvenile justice system and will not cause an overpopulation of juvenile detention facilities.

We are thankful to all of our partners who joined us during this legislative session by contacting their legislators, spreading the word, and continuing to show their support for youth justice reform. During the interim, Just Kids Partnership will be out organizing in Maryland to build support for next sessions goals of ending the automatic prosecution of youth as adults and removing youth from adult jails. To learn more about Just Kids work – check out our documentary screening "The Truth About Our Youth,"at the Silver Spring Civic Center on May 6. Reserve your seat HERE.  

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

CFYJ Goes to College: Windows from Prison Art Exhibit

By Jessica Sandoval

On Wednesday, April 9, CFYJ participated on a panel to discuss youth incarcerated in the adult system as part of the Windows from Prison project at George Mason University.  This two-week exhibit will feature hundreds of participants taking part in daily workshops, events, and community forums. Students from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and George Mason University collaborated to create photographs requested by incarcerated Washingtonians. 

When youth from Washington are placed in the federal penitentiary system, they can be sent to any prison across the country (potentially thousands of miles away from family or friends). Windows From Prison utilizes photography as a way to bridge this distance while creating space and humanistic entry points for students, teachers, NGO's, family members of incarcerated individuals, former prisoners, and policy makers to engage with the sources, impacts, and alternatives to mass incarceration.

“If you could have a window in your cell, what place from your past would it look out to?”
This question was asked to prisoners who are from Washington but who have been sent to prisons across the country. As responses came back, students from George Mason University and Duke Ellington High School went across the city, created the requested photographs, and mailed the images to the incarcerated participants.
From April 7 -21, the photographs, which have each been printed on 10-foot banners, will be exhibited on George Mason University’s Fairfax campus (situated in the main public square in front of the Fenwick Library).

For the exhibit, the project has partnered students, teachers, policy advocates, former prisoners, and community members to produce an extensive set of public programing. Each day will feature film screenings, brainstorming sessions, lectures, poetry readings, and more in hopes of meaningfully exploring the causes, effects, and alternatives to incarceration.

For more information, the requested images from those incarcerated and a list of events, visit, here

To learn more about the efforts to remove youth from the adult court in the District of Columbia, please visit CFYJ's website, here.  

Friday, April 11, 2014

New York Governor Forms Commission on Youth, Public Safety & Justice

By Christopher Costner
CFYJ Fellow

On April 9, New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo, announced the members for his Commission

on Youth, Public Safety & Justice. This Commission will generate recommendations and policies regarding youth in New York’s criminal and juvenile justice systems. The Governor indicated that New York’s laws are archaic and in desperate need of improvement. New York is currently one of only two states (North Carolina being the second) that automatically charges 16 and 17 year olds as adults. In 2013 alone, New York State had 33,000 cases handled in the adult court system involving children only 16 and 17 years old. Due to this, thousands of children were denied the proper services and help that they would be offered in juvenile courts and detention facilities. Members appointed to the commission include several justice focused groups such as: the Albany Chief of Police, NYC Director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, Executive Director of the Children’s Defense Fund, and Executive Director of the Correctional Association of NY.

This Commission is a great step towards justice for New York youth, and the Campaign for Youth Justice will be eager to follow the work of this prestigious commission. For more information see this press release from the Governor’s Office, which outlines the Commission’s goals and all the participating members.

For Safer Communities, We Must Start with a System that's Fair

By Benjamin Chambers
Communications Director for the National Juvenile JusticeNetwork.

This week’s blog, For Safer Communities, We Must Start with a System that's Fair, is from Benjamin Chambers at the National Juvenile Justice Network.  It comes during National Crime Victims' Rights Week and talks about the pervasiveness of racial and ethnic disparities in the treatment of youth in the justice system and in the numbers of youth who are victims of crime.

As I write this, I've just left “SurvivorsSpeak,” a conference in California that brought together hundreds of crime victims and survivors for the first time. It was a powerful, moving event. Conference attendees came from all over the state, yet they had many tragic stories in common: losing multiple family members to violence, long histories of sexual and domestic violence, being victims of sex trafficking or hate crimes. They were also predominantly people of color, from low-income communities.

The event was a testament to the devastating impact of crime (and the inadequate response of the justice system) on impoverished communities of color.  To my mind, it also reinforced the need for Congress to reauthorize and strengthen the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA).

As juvenile justice advocates already know, youth of color are disproportionately impacted at every stage of the juvenile justice system: they’re arrested more often and punished more severely than their white counterparts.  And we also know that incarcerating kids—or merely involving kids in the formal juvenile justice system—is ineffective and may even make them more likely to commit new crimes.

youngmenofcolorBut that’s only half the story. Kids and adults of color are not only more likely to get in trouble with the law, they’re also more likely than their white counterparts to be victims and survivors of crime.

Data from the National Crime Victimization Survey shows that over a six-month period, Latinos, African Americans, and American Indians were significantly more likely than whites to have been victims of violent crime;and a recent statewide survey in California found that Latinos and African Americans are “more likely than whites to have been victims of three or more crimes over a five-year period.”

As we note in “A House Divided No More: Common Cause forJuvenile Justice Advocates, Victim Advocates, and Communities”—a new paper from my organization, the National Juvenile Justice Network – research shows that being victimized by violent crime makes kids more likely to commit new crimes.

One study of over 5,000 youth published by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention found that youth who were the victims of a violent offense were three times more likely to commit a violent offense in the next twelve months than those who were not.

To sum up: on the one hand, we have a disproportionate number of kids of color being caught up in a juvenile justice system that can make them more likely to commit new crimes. On the other hand, we have untold numbers of youth of color being victimized by violent crime at disproportionate rates in their own communities – which also makes them more likely to commit new crimes.

The JJDPA can’t fix this problem. But it can help.

Right now, the Act requires states to study and “address” disproportionate minority contact (DMC) in their juvenile justice systems.  But that vague requirement hasn’t yielded much progress.

Much more could be done to set expectations for the Act’s DMC “core requirement” about what concrete steps states should take to achieve measurable reductions in racial and ethnic disparities. The Act might even take a more holistic approach and require collaborative work with other agencies to ensure that communities with the highest need for victims’ services and trauma care receive targeted attention.

Both steps would result in safer communities, especially in the areas hardest-hit by crime.