In a recent report titled “Branded for Life,” the Human Rights Watch condemned the state of Florida’s outdated policies of allowing juveniles to be moved to the adult court through “direct file.”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. 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.