The Florida Legislature has tackled several issues this session that appeal to our sense of fairness. A Senate committee approved one such bill this week that would take away prosecutors’ power to “direct file” cases against juvenile offenders.
Since 1994, direct filing has allowed prosecutors to send juveniles to adult court, usually as part of a plea deal in which they agree to incarceration in a juvenile facility to resolve their case. This usually takes place without a court hearing or an airing of the evidence. The process gives prosecutors — instead of impartial juvenile judges — the right to charge young people as adults.
Proponents of changing the law and some lawmakers say that only juvenile judges should wield such authority, and that these decisions should include a hearing where each side can be heard and the evidence weighed.
No, we don’t want marauding teens committing crimes in our community and receiving special protection from the more-lenient juvenile court system. But direct filing should not be a way to get troubled teens out of our hair while tainting them with a lifelong criminal record. An impartial juvenile judge should decide the legal track for a juvenile offender once he enters the judicial system, not a prosecutor, whose job is to get a conviction.
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“What we are doing is helping create more criminals,” said Sen. Darren Soto, Democrat from Orlando. His astute assessment was echoed by a bipartisan group of lawmakers from the Miami-Dade delegation when they met with the Editorial Board before the start of the session. They cited decriminalization of some juvenile offenses as a priority.
Among those opposed to stripping Florida prosecutors of their power to “direct file” is Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, who went to Tallahassee this week to speak against a measure she calls “dangerous,” a sentiment she expands upon in today’s Other Views page. “Regulation that limits our ability to address dangerous juvenile offenders creates a situation where prosecutors’ hands are tied as we try to intervene and keep the community safe,” Ms. Fernandez Rundle told the Board.
She is to be commended for how she has handled juvenile offenders in Miami-Dade, where currently only about 1 percent — those charged with murder, manslaughter, armed robbery or sexual assault — go directly to adult court. Ms. Fernandez Rundle also has created groundbreaking diversion initiatives for at-risk kids.
But that’s not the case in other parts of Florida where state attorneys have used direct-file powers to pressure juveniles into accepting deals in adult court.
Direct-filing power emerged in response to the horrific murders of tourists in Miami-Dade in 1993, when nine died at the hands of young armed hoodlums. The crimes attracted national and international headlines and threatened our multimillion-dollar tourism industry. Lawmakers gave direct-filing a big thumbs-up.
But there has been a significant decrease in juvenile crime, now at its lowest in 60 years. And there is more data tracking the negative effects of jail time on low-level young offenders who made a bad decision at one time, preventing men and women who want to get on the right path from getting scholarships or jobs or some professional licenses.
Last year, there were 4,921 youths arrested in Miami-Dade. The majority, 98 percent, remained in juvenile court. But not all prosecutors have Ms. Fernandez Rundle’s commitment to not “helping create more criminals.”
Too many juveniles in Florida are being unfairly punished for past sins and deserve a fairer shake at the hands of the law.