In the coming months, we have an opportunity to correct one of Florida’s worst injustices: our appalling record on trying children in the adult criminal justice system.
Since 2009, Florida state attorneys have charged more than 15,000 children in adult courts, some as young as 10 years old. Children of color disproportionally bear the weight of that policy: They make up 67 percent of children arrested (itself a disproportionate share of the population) and 77 percent of kids arrested by police whom prosecutors eventually try as adults. Most children tried in adult court are accused of committing relatively minor offenses, and almost all end up there without review or approval from a judge. A procedure known as “direct file” allows a prosecutor almost complete discretion to get around Florida’s typical minimum age for adult prosecution and charge children under 18 as adults.
The decision to charge these kids as adults will change their lives forever: It disrupts their schooling, causes them to be held in adult jails before trial, where they are exposed to older and tougher adults and often suffer significant trauma; and can saddle them with life-long criminal records that hurt their chances of finding employment. Sadly, those children are among the luckier ones: Far too many other children receive extremely harsh prison sentences — up to and including life without the possibility of parole — that effectively strip them of their futures and take away any possibility they had of growing into productive adults.
This treatment of children runs counter to what we know about their brain development and capacity for change. Worse, it actually makes Florida less safe than appropriate treatment of children would (and does so at a higher financial cost).
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We now know through science what we have always known intuitively: Children are different from adults. Their brains are not fully developed, so they are less culpable for their actions, act impulsively and struggle to appreciate the consequences of their conduct. Because their brains are still developing, however, they are likely to respond positively to treatment and to change for the better. And studies uniformly show that as children mature into adulthood, they age out of crime — that is, of course, unless we scar them by putting them in adult prison, surrounded by people who have lost hope.
Florida tries more children in adult court than any other state — indeed, most states do not allow prosecutors to direct-file children in adult court without hearings or judicial oversight. We need to do better for our children. In early 2019, we expect that our Legislature will again consider a bill to keep young children out of adult courts, prevent prosecutors from using direct file without court approval and ensure that the (hopefully very few) children who are still charged in adult court are housed in juvenile treatment facilities and not adult jails and prisons. Last year, the Florida Senate passed a similar measure. But the House did not. This year we must make sure that it becomes law. Floridians can do that by telling their state legislators that they expect them to pass criminal justice reform in the upcoming session.
It is unconscionable that we have treated our children so poorly for this long. This year, we will take an important step toward making our criminal justice system more fair for all Floridians. We must allow children to grow into healthy, productive adults. We will do this by treating them like kids.
Stephen Ross is the owner of the Miami Dolphins; Anquan Boldin is a former National Football League player; Stan Van Gundy is a former NBA coach.