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Courts / Law

Bills Reforming Way Juveniles Can Be Charged As Adults Moving In Fla. Legislature

Credit Publik15 / Flickr

A bill reforming the way state prosecutors can charge juveniles as adults is starting to move in both chambers of the Florida Legislature.

Susana Marino has three kids.

“My oldest son was a Marine for eight years, and he’s now in Medical school,” said Marino. “My youngest son is now 11. And, my middle son, Miguel, was direct filed at age 16, and he’s currently in prison.”

Direct file is just one of the ways a juvenile can be transferred to adult court for prosecution. In her case, Marino says her son, Miguel, was arrested as a teenager.

“At age 16 with no prior record, Miguel was arrested for breaking into an occupied residence for several months with some friends who had stole some video games and other electronics from the house,” she added. “Without any input from me or a hearing in front of a judge, the prosecutor just chose to direct file my son.”

And, she says as a result he was sent to New Port Richey Detention Center.

“At that jail, he was exposed to adult inmates,” Marino continued. “He was beaten, sexually humiliated, threatened with rape, forced to drink urine, and forced to lick the inside of the toilets with his tongue.”

Miguel was later sentenced to House arrest to be followed by four years of adult probation, but Marino says it was later revoked after he violated it.

“He violated his house arrest by not making curfew once on time because he was at work,” said Marino. “And, another time, he went to CVS right behind our home to buy a gallon of milk. His probation was revoked, and he’s now serving four years in adult prison for the offense he committed at 16. My son committed a serious mistake, and I know he should be punished for it, but he should have been handled by the juvenile justice system.”

And, during a recent hearing in the House, another parent—Jack Jones—spoke of his foster son who was a repeat juvenile offender and was direct filed because of his latest crime.

“It was a matter of taking surfboards out of a local surf station with a couple of buddies, and the state attorney just had enough and said, ’we’re direct filing you,’” said Jones. “And, I can tell you, after living those years with the bloodcurdling terrors and night screams of my son. It took him almost two years to stop wetting the bed and getting this out of his system, but the brain trauma was still there.”

Both Jones and Marino are among several backers of a bill aimed at trying to reform Florida’s direct file system.

The bill originally repealed Florida’s direct file statute. But, now it adds new criteria that needs to be followed before a determination is made that a juvenile is sentenced as an adult. It also allows prosecutors to direct file minors over the age of 15 for certain offenses as well as 14 and 15 years olds for murder, manslaughter, or sexual battery cases.

While Rep. Dave Kerner believes in some sort of reform, the Lake Worth Democrat says prosecutors should still have full discretion in many crimes. He’s a former special prosecutor for the Palm Beach State Attorney’s office.

“As the bill is currently written in the amended form, there are some very serious crimes that will restrict the state attorney from using his or her discretion to direct file,” said Kerner. “Chief among those crimes is burglary of a dwelling, burglary while armed, burglary with the intent to commit assault or battery, arsons of occupied homes, strong armed robbery, aggravated battery with a weapon or firearm, possession of weapons on school campuses, and the list goes on unfortunately.”

And, Buddy Jacobs with the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association urges caution on moving forward with this type of reform. And, he adds state prosecutors are already making strides in this area.

“Direct filings are down by 53 percent in the last five years,” said Jacobs. “Of the 44,634 youth arrested in 2013-14—1,322 were transferred to adult court at an average rate at 2.9 percent. Now, the Department of Juvenile Justice has said of those arrested, 9.2 percent were considered to be serious and violent chronic offenders. And, yet, we only direct filed on 2.9 percent.”

Still, Rep. Katie Edwards (D-Plantation), the bill’s sponsor, says while she’ll continue to work with stakeholders, this bill is needed—citing her own stats.

“98 percent of the juveniles in the adult court in Florida end up there pursuant to our state’s direct file statute which gives prosecutors unfair discretion to move a wide range of juvenile cases to adult court,” said Edwards. “That includes any 16 or 17 year old accused of a felony with no involvement by a judge whatsoever. Florida’s direct file law is not effectively serving public safety. Indeed, recent studies link transfers of juveniles to adult court and shows to increase—not decrease—recidivism rates.”

And, the measure passed the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee last week. Meanwhile, its Senate companion by Sen. Thad Altman (R-Rockledge) passed its first committee Monday. Both bills have two more stops to go before it heads to the floor.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner .

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