Prosecutors in Florida are charging juveniles as adults far more often than they should. Embracing a practice called direct filing, prosecutors can file adult criminal charges on children as young as 14 without the consent of a judge. This gives prosecutors too much leeway and exposes youths to the adult criminal justice system before they are fully able to navigate it. The Legislature should reset the standards for prosecutorial discretion in this area and establish a middle ground that both adequately punishes juveniles and seeks to rehabilitate them.
The Tampa Bay Times' Anna Phillips reported this week that the number of juveniles facing adult-level charges in Hillsborough County rose from 101 in 2013-14 to 124 the next fiscal year. The total number in Hillsborough is higher than in more heavily populated areas in Florida such as Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Criminal justice experts in Hillsborough say a spate of gun violence is likely responsible for the uptick.
Supporters of a movement to ensure that juveniles are not introduced into the adult criminal justice system too soon say that the spike in juveniles facing adult charges is due in part to prosecutors' ability to bypass judges and directly file adult charges against young offenders. State law allows juveniles 14 and older to be charged as an adult through direct filing by prosecutors, an indictment by a grand jury or a judicial waiver. Critics of direct filing correctly assert that abusing the practice can lead to overcharging or be used as a threat to make juvenile offenders accept plea deals. Both situations could be avoided if juveniles had access to a judge before they were charged.
A bill sponsored by Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena, HB 129, and a similar bill in the Senate would restrict prosecutors' ability to directly charge juveniles as adults. The bill would replace the current system with a two-tiered approach based on a juvenile's age and offense. In the first tier, for example, the state attorney could direct file a juvenile who is 16 to 17 years old and accused of committing one of 17 specific offenses, including murder, manslaughter and armed robbery. Youths between 14 and 15 could be direct filed only if they stood accused of a shorter list of offenses.
Predictably, prosecutors do not want to cede any ground on their direct filing authority. While most of them likely use at least some discretion before charging juveniles as adults, there are exceptions, demonstrating the need for judicial involvement in the earliest stages of a criminal case. At risk is the potential to saddle juveniles with adult charges that, even if they are found not guilty, create an adult arrest record that could impact their ability to obtain employment, housing, loans and more.
Without question, some criminal charges against juveniles should be heard in adult court. But even in the face of the most egregious charges, juveniles are not adults. Their cognitive and emotional development puts them at a disadvantage in the adult criminal justice system. Judges can help to bridge the divide.
The direct file bill before the Legislature presents a reasonable compromise that would neither handcuff prosecutors nor leave judges powerless to intervene. The purpose of imposing juvenile sanctions is to effectively punish young offenders while giving them an opportunity for rehabilitation. Direct filing adult charges — even employed by careful prosecutors — too often robs juveniles of a second chance.