Sunday, May 27, 2018
News Roundup

A court to give juveniles a chance

“Boutique courts" we called them, back when it seemed all the rage to set up a specialized court under one judge to deal exclusively with sex offenders, or domestic violence or drugs.

When a new one would come up, some at the courthouse would roll their eyes. What next? A special animal court to handle dog bites and barking dogs and such?

Well, yes. And turns out it's not a bad idea.

Boutique courts immerse the judge, lawyers and staff in the nuances particular to an issue, like the outside agencies to be dealt with or the peculiarities of the law. This can lead to consistency and efficiency in court. (Really — I've seen it!)

Now, in Hillsborough County, an especially serious such court is under consideration for teenagers charged as adults.

Concerned by the number of juvenile defendants who land in adult court, Circuit Judge Ralph Stoddard is proposing the idea of a single judge to hear those cases, instead of spreading them across assorted dockets.

In the last fiscal year in Hillsborough, adult charges were filed against juveniles 234 times, more than in any other place in Florida. Prosecutors say they consider each case on its individual merits and stand by those decisions.

And this week came news that Pinellas prosecutors were asking a grand jury to indict a 13-year-old accused of attempted murder as an adult.

So why does a specialized court make sense?

Plenty of kids who commit serious crimes deserve adult court and adult sanctions. Others — like juveniles who end up there because a co-defendant qualifies for adult court — might be salvageable.

As Judge Stoddard put it: "Some kids have burned all their bridges. Some kids haven't had the opportunity."

The scrutiny of a single, specialized court could mean the difference between turning around a kid who can be turned around, or sending him off into a system where there is little hope of it.

For perspective, I asked Irene Sullivan, retired Pinellas judge and author of Raised by the Courts: One Judge's Insight Into Juvenile Justice. (These days she teaches law school and has nearly finished her next book.)

"Intriguing," she said of the Hillsborough idea, and also "a very wise move."

"This is a gap area," she said, "where we lose a lot of kids."

Juvenile sanctions are intended to be rehabilitative, she said, and adult ones, punitive.

"Sending juveniles to adult prison just creates more prisoners," she said. "They learn how to be adult criminals."

For the record, having a single judge over such cases — and Stoddard says he is not angling for the job — doesn't mean a system going soft on juvenile crime. But it could be a consistent eye on issues specific to kids and crime, a steady, thoughtful look.

By the way, that boutique court trend hasn't exactly waned.

Just this month, Hillsborough announced a new one to give veterans charged with misdemeanors a chance — and help.

Hillsborough also is streamlining code enforcement violations in court. It already has specific courts to handle business disputes and asbestos litigation.

Seems a no-brainer that the serious matter of young defendants in grownup court deserves at least as much.

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