Editorials

Direct file wrong for juvenile offenders

Juvenile offenders in a Florida correctional center.
Juvenile offenders in a Florida correctional center. ACEs Too High website

As a state, one would think we would nourish, protect and value the lives of young people — especially when they run into trouble with the law and must be led back to the straight and narrow.

Granted, not all troubled teens can be saved. But for the great majority of them, we must do better.

One nefarious practice in Florida continues to help ruin the lives of thousands of young offenders, and it must stop.

We implore state lawmakers to correct this wrong during the upcoming legislative session.

At issue is a legal practice called “direct file.” It allows state prosecutors to serve as judge and jury in the lives of teens. And therein lies a conflict.

In 1994, as teen violence exploded, direct filing let prosecutors send arrested juveniles to adult court, usually as part of a plea deal in which a teen agrees 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 — unbridled discretion to automatically charge 16- and 17-year-olds with felonies as adults.

Prosecutors armed with that unfettered power largely bypass “judicial waivers,” hearings where a judge settles the juvenile- or adult-court question. Not only does direct file omit a disinterested arbiter for the child’s best interests, it plunges youngsters — and increasingly those charged with nonviolent crimes — into the much more punitive adult system.

And that’s simply unacceptable, especially at a time when juvenile crime is down in the state and across the nation.

Florida leads the nation in shifting juveniles to the adult court system and in locking up kids in adult hellholes.

Over 60 percent of the more than 12,000 juvenile suspects moved to the Florida adult-court system in the past five years were charged with nonviolent felonies.

A 2014 Human Rights Watch report on direct file suggests Florida dump the practice and embrace the fairer alternative of judges ruling on juvenile-to-adult transfers.

A coalition made up of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a legal advocacy organization, and the James Madison Institute, a Tallahassee-based think tank, and others, are working with local players ranging from Miami-Dade Public Defender Carlos J. Martinez, who sees young offenders saddled with lifelong criminal records out of prosecutorial expediency, to local artist Xavier Cortada, who, through art programs, helps these trapped teens find “a voice.”

“What we are doing is helping create better criminals,” Tania Galloni, with Southern Poverty Law Center, told the Editorial Board.

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle has expressed support for direct filing — as have most prosecutors in the state. They say that they need flexibility to direct file to keep the community safe. To her credit, Ms. Fernandez Rundle, according to Mr. Martinez, is much more judicious in deciding who gets direct filed. But that’s hardly the case in too many other counties.

Proponents of changing the law and some lawmakers say that only juvenile judges should wield such authority, and there should be accompanying hearings where each side, and the evidence, can be heard.

The issue was raised in the Legislature last year, but died in the smoke of the Medicaid battle. There again is a bipartisan effort to reduce the number of kids tried as adults. House Bill 129 is sponsored by Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Sunrise, Kathleen Peters, R-Pinellas, and Bobby Powell, D-Palm Beach. A companion bill, Senate Bill 314, has been filed by Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami. These legislators should be praised for stepping forward to right a wrong.

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