Lawmakers seek limits to criminally charging youth as adults

Lawmakers seek limits on which criminal charges would send juveniles to prison.

Published March 23 2015
Updated March 24 2015

TALLAHASSEE — When he was 16, Miguel Marino was arrested for breaking into an unoccupied home in Hillsborough County.

A prosecutor charged him as an adult, and Marino was sentenced to house arrest and four years of probation, his mother, Maria Marino, said. When he violated his probation, despite being a juvenile when he committed the crime, he was sentenced to prison, as if he were an adult.

"My son committed a serious mistake, and I know he should be punished for it," Maria Marino said in a Florida House hearing last week. "But he should have been handled by the juvenile justice system."

Marino's story isn't unique. In Florida, prosecutors have wide discretion to move juvenile cases to adult court, including for nonviolent felonies. This has led to minors spending time in a correctional system under investigation for mistreating and neglecting inmates.

Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, is sponsoring a House bill that would limit prosecutorial discretion under the state's "direct file" statute. It cleared its first committee last week with just one opponent, Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth, a former special prosecutor.

In the Senate on Monday, a committee approved a version of the bill sponsored by Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne.

"Why on Earth would I want to send a 15-, 16- or 17-year-old kid who's committed petty theft or is there for a nonviolent drug offense into the state prison system?" Edwards said. "I've essentially put that child at risk for a lifetime of lawlessness."

A 2014 report by Human Rights Watch found that juveniles in Florida face trial as adults more than any other state. And more than half of those had been accused of nonviolent crimes.

Under Edwards' proposed reforms, prosecutors would be limited in which minors can face trial as an adult.

Her bill allows prosecutors to try 16- and 17-year-olds as adults when charged with murder, rape, armed robbery and about a dozen other violent crimes. The same would apply for charging 14- and 15-year-olds with murder, manslaughter and sexual battery, when there's overwhelming public interest.

Opponents, particularly state attorneys, argue the existing structure works well. At the Senate Criminal Justice hearing Monday, Buddy Jacobs of the State Attorneys of Florida said juvenile arrests have decreased since the introduction of the direct file process.

"I would submit to you that the thing is not broken," he said. "It's worked very well and the state attorneys have done a good job …"

Edwards said she doesn't want to see serious crimes go unpunished, but prosecution is inconsistent, she said. A child arrested in one part of Florida could face prison, while one arrested elsewhere, charged with the same crime, would go through the juvenile system.

As the two proposals move forward, there are small differences of opinion between Edwards and Altman, but they both said they want to ensure some reforms are made.

"I think most lawmakers, if they knew 15-year-olds could be sentenced to adult jail for some of these offenses, they'd say that doesn't make much sense," Edwards said.

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