TAMPA — In a state known for its courts' tough treatment of children, Tampa holds what some view as a dubious distinction: more juvenile defendants are criminally charged here as adults than in any other jurisdiction in Florida.
Prosecutors filed adult-level charges against defendants under the age of 18 in Hillsborough Circuit Court 234 times during the last fiscal year, according to statistics from the state Department of Juvenile Justice. That was more than in the judicial circuits of larger cities such as Miami (208) and Jacksonville (126).
Hillsborough Circuit Judge Ralph Stoddard sees those numbers as worrisome.
"Either we really do have the worst kids in the state, or they're not being treated fairly," Stoddard said. "It's a community issue and it has to be addressed."
With the support of the Hillsborough Public Defender's Office and a collection of local child advocates, Stoddard has floated a proposal he thinks could be a first step toward greater fairness in the criminal courts' handling of juveniles.
Stoddard, a dependency and juvenile-court judge, is pushing for the creation of a special division of Hillsborough Circuit Court to deal with young people charged as adults.
While state law gives prosecutors wide discretion to shift juveniles into the adult system on charges from grand theft of a motor vehicle to murder, one court to handle such cases would ensure consistency in their treatment and sentencing, Stoddard said.
The court could also make sure they are offered suitable options for diversion programs or, if appropriate, returned to the juvenile system.
In some cases, advocates say, adult punishment or incarceration (more than a hundred people age 17 and under are serving terms in Florida state prisons) can permanently alter the lives of juveniles who might have committed a nonviolent offense in a moment of poor judgment.
"It really is in the best interest of public safety," Stoddard said. "If you can fix the kid, you really should try."
Juveniles charged as adults — a process attorneys call direct filing — are now mixed with adult defendants and spread among courtrooms.
Some are pulled into the system from juvenile court because they are co-defendants of adults charged with the same crime.
According to statistics compiled by the Public Defender's Office, which represents many juveniles in the system, those defendants receive disparate treatment.
Some judges offer juvenile sanctions to as many as half of the children who appear in their courtrooms, while others sentence them all as adults.
For juveniles caught up in the criminal courts because of dumb mistakes, critics of the system say, adult charges — particularly those resulting in a felony conviction — can be a permanent brand limiting their future chance at jobs, military service and other opportunities.
"Once you take a child and make them an adult, and maybe even a convicted felon, you have set that child's life on a track that we all realize is difficult, if not impossible," Public Defender Julianne Holt said.
But not all are convinced of a need for reform.
Hillsborough Circuit Judge Ronald Ficarrotta said he thinks there are positive aspects to the idea of a special court handling juveniles charged as adults — such as the improved logistics of concentrating the cases in a single setting — but that to some extent, the idea is a solution in search of a problem.
"The system is working well now as it is," Ficarrotta said. "My experience has been that generally when these cases are direct-filed, you're dealing with juveniles charged with serious crimes or who have a prior history."
In some cases, he added, rehabilitation efforts within the juvenile system have already been tried and failed.
The Hillsborough State Attorney's Office, which makes decisions in each case about whether to charge juveniles as adults, declined to comment in detail on Stoddard's proposal.
"At this point, it is an ongoing discussion in the formative stages," office spokesman Mark Cox said. "We've been in communication with the chief judge, the judiciary and other partners in the system, and will continue to do so as we move forward."
Chief Judge Manuel Menendez Jr. will ultimately make the call on whether to implement Stoddard's proposal.
Menendez was not available to comment Friday.
The debate over Hillsborough County's high number of children charged as adults is set against the backdrop of a similar debate statewide.
Florida had far and away the highest rate of transferring juveniles to adult courts among a group of states analyzed by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2011 — moving eight times as many children into adult courts as California, and 19 times as many as Texas.
Hillsborough's elevated rank among counties in a state that is itself among the most zealous in charging juveniles as adults is not a good sign, said Tampa attorney James Felman.
"I don't believe there's any evidence that Hillsborough County has the worst children in the nation," Felman said. "So something's out of whack."
Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337. Follow him on Twitter @petejamison.