TAMPA — This week, as the U.S. Supreme Court heard appeals in two Florida juvenile cases, scholars took note that the state leads the nation in locking up kids for life who committed crimes in which no one died.
That isn't Florida's only distinction.
The state sends more children to adult jails and prisons, period. Laws make it easy for prosecutors to pluck young people out of the juvenile justice system before they turn 18.
And in sheer numbers, Hillsborough County transferred more juvenile cases to the adult system than any other county in fiscal year 2007-08, a St. Petersburg Times review of Florida Department of Juvenile Justice data shows. Percentage-wise, Palm Beach County ranked No. 1, with Pinellas following as a close second among the state's largest counties.
Six Tampa Bay area counties — Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando, Citrus and Manatee — deemed juveniles in 1,410 cases bad enough to be charged as adults. On the other end of the spectrum, seven counties in Florida didn't send any young people to the adult system.
Local prosecutors say the numbers reflect an aggressive stance against juvenile crime, but they stress that the decision to charge teens as adults isn't made lightly. Kids who wind up in felony court can still walk away with juvenile sanctions.
"It gives them one more bite at the apple, but we have a much bigger hammer over their head," Hillsborough Assistant State Attorney Pam Bondi said.
Advocates for juvenile justice reform argue that the statutes Florida enacted in the 1990s response to a surge in juvenile crime need updating. Researchers say the laws fail to consider that adolescents, less developed than adults, are often capable of change. Or that, all things equal, juveniles are more likely to re-offend if convicted in adult court.
The stain of an adult conviction, they say, threatens a young person's ability to join the military, get a job or enroll in school.
"You essentially pull the rug out from under these kids, and it's no wonder that they end up back in the system," said Liz Ryan, chief executive officer of the Campaign for Youth Justice in Washington, D.C., an organization dedicated to keeping youth out of the adult criminal justice system.
Statewide during the 2007-08 fiscal year, the number of juveniles transferred to adult court increased to 3,592. That's a 45 percent jump since 2003-04, but only about half as many transfers as the state had at its peak in the mid 1990s.
Hillsborough County prosecutors sent 660 juvenile cases to adult court in 2007-08, the most in the state. Hillsborough also had the most juvenile arrests in 2007 and 2008, according to data from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Pinellas prosecutors transferred 517 cases, up from 271 cases four years earlier. Pasco County transferred 84 cases, down from previous years; Hernando had 46, Citrus had 33 and Manatee had 70.
In five of the six counties, burglary was the most common ticket to the adult system.
Researchers say the majority of juvenile cases land in adult court through "direct file," meaning at the discretion of prosecutors. Florida is one of just 15 states that give prosecutors that power.
Some juvenile advocates contend that the decision to transfer juveniles to adult court should be left up to judges because they are neutral parties in the criminal justice system. Pinellas-Pasco Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett counters that the current arrangement includes sufficient checks and balances, allowing judges to give young offenders juvenile sanctions or youthful offender sentences if they don't feel the cases merit adult punishment.
Florida statutes require prosecutors to direct file or seek indictment for certain violent crimes — such as murder — in adult court no matter the offender's age. Beyond that, prosecutors say their filing decisions are dictated by each offender's individual circumstances rather than strict guidelines.
Some crimes are so heinous that the public interest requires adult charges, prosecutors say. That was the rationale they used to pursue adult charges against 13-year-old Jose Guadalupe Walle, who was suspected in a string of rapes and robberies at restaurants in St. Petersburg and Apollo Beach and a Gibsonton home.
"He was 13 going on 25," Bartlett said this week. Some young offenders are "behaving as adults, and the crime itself warrants them to be charged as adults."
Prosecutors also turn to the adult system to deal with repeat offenders.
"Frankly, there are some of the kids we have in juvenile court who have not been amenable to any sanctions we can impose," said Pinellas Judge Raymond Gross. "You run out of options."
The charging decision isn't always clear cut. Defense attorneys and prosecutors spent weeks wrestling over whether Davis Islands teen Jordan Valdez should be charged in juvenile or adult court with fleeing the scene of a fatal crash when she was 16. The teen's attorneys said she was a good kid who made a mistake, and they worried that a felony charge would dash her college scholarship hopes.
Prosecutors ultimately filed an adult charge, saying only that they based the decision on the nature of the crime. Valdez is expected to plead guilty and be sentenced Nov. 24.
In Pinellas, Bartlett admits he struggled with the decision to charge five teenagers as adults after they terrorized neighborhoods over two nights in January and February with firebombs, slashed tires and shattered windows. Though the young men were good students, Bartlett said the amount of property damage and the repeated offenses tipped the scale for him to adult charges.
"I was pretty comfortable in my mind that those kids would never reoffend," he said. "But there's a certain level of punishment that has to be attached to it."
Last month, a judge sentenced the teens as youthful offenders to varying combinations of prison and probation.
Advocates acknowledge that young offenders need to be punished, but they lament that the state's tough stance on juvenile crime has shifted the focus, and funding, away from rehabilitation and prevention.
There are bright spots. After terrible crime rates in the 1990s, Miami-Dade is now considered a national model for effective juvenile justice. The county puts special emphasis on getting services for first-time offenders based on their needs rather than their crimes, a model Hillsborough and Pinellas counties have watched with interest.
Taking a holistic view with juvenile offenders is the only approach that makes sense, said Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt.
"If you don't modify the behavior of the child and you don't create a values system," Holt said, "there's no doubt that the community suffers at a later time and so does that child."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.