Hillsborough Circuit Judge Ralph Stoddard's proposal for a specialized court to hear serious juvenile cases is a commendable idea worth pursuing. Not every case is appropriate for juvenile sanctions — and not every child will appreciate the opportunity to turn his life around. But Hillsborough County, which sends more juveniles to adult court than some larger jurisdictions, should look for ways to end a cycle that all but ensures some youthful offenders will spend their lives in and out of the criminal justice system.
The judge's proposal is a thoughtful, timely response to a distinctly local problem. Even in a state where the courts are tough on children, Hillsborough stands out by having more juvenile defendants charged as adults than in any other jurisdiction in Florida. According to the state's juvenile justice agency, prosecutors filed adult-level charges against child defendants in Hillsborough 234 times in the last fiscal year, more than in the judicial circuits that cover larger cities, including Miami (208) and Jacksonville (126).
Tampa's population has a higher percentage than statewide of residents under age 18, but that does not fully explain the higher number of children prosecuted as adults. As Stoddard told the Tampa Bay Times' Peter Jamison: "Either we really do have the worst kids in the state, or they're not being treated fairly." Either way, the judge is right: The issue has to be addressed. Creating a single court to handle these cases would bring some consistency to the prosecution and sentencing. While state law gives prosecutors the discretion to move youthful offenders into the adult system, a consolidated court to handle these cases would bring greater focus to diversionary programs. Some youthful offenders could find the structure they need to continue pursuing an education or career that a prison record might otherwise doom.
Specialized courts aren't the answer in every case, but they can bring a level of expertise and efficiency to the criminal justice system. In Hillsborough, special courts for family matters and drug offenses have brought more holistic strategies for addressing domestic violence, delinquency and substance abuse. Stoddard's proposal would still leave the range of existing sanctions on the table; children still could be tried as adults and face harsher punishment. The difference with a unified court is that every case would get a new level of scrutiny.
Chief Judge Manuel Menendez Jr., who will make the decision, should give the idea a chance. The circuit has nothing to lose by exploring whether this approach would make for a fairer, more effective criminal justice system. At the very least, a consolidated court would give the circuit a better sense of why so many youthful offenders are being charged as adults.