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  1. Opinion

Column: It's time to stop funneling Florida youth into the adult criminal justice system

Published Feb. 1, 2018

Florida prosecutes more children in the adult criminal justice system than any other state. And historically, the 13th Judicial Circuit — which covers all of Hillsborough County and many of the constituents I represent — has been one of the worst.

For too long, our youth have been disenfranchised. They've been sent to adult court and adult prisons. They've been branded for life as convicted felons — limiting their opportunities for education, housing and employment.

By doing so, we've not only put their lives, but our own safety at risk.

Children in the adult system are more likely to commit crimes again and less likely to get back on track than children in the juvenile justice system. Prosecuting children as adults creates more crime, not less.

Fortunately, leaders in Hillsborough County are recognizing that prosecuting children as adults is bad for the kids, a threat to public safety and a waste of taxpayer money. In fact, our new state attorney, Andrew Warren, campaigned on the promise that he would enact juvenile justice reforms and try to reduce the number of children tried as adults.

He's done just that. Preliminary numbers show significantly fewer kids in Hillsborough County are being transferred to adult court, from more than 200 kids in 2011-12 to fewer than 100 kids in 2016-17. Warren understands that there are practices proven to reduce crime and recidivism while steering youth away from the criminal justice system.

Hillsborough County is lucky to have what people are calling a new kind of reform-minded prosecutor. But not all judicial districts in Florida are as fortunate.

While having smart-on-crime prosecutors can lead to regional reforms, legislative action is the only way to guarantee long-term, systemic, statewide change.

That's why I'm sponsoring HB 509. This proposed legislation — along with SB 936 — would limit adult prosecution of children across Florida.

There is no minimum age for transfer to adult court in Florida, where children as young as 10 have been prosecuted as adults. HB 509 would eliminate adult prosecution as an option for children younger than 14. As the law currently stands, 16- and 17-year-olds can be charged as an adult for any crime. This bill would reserve adult prosecution of those teenagers for only the most serious offenses. If a child is sentenced to adult sanctions, this law would require judges to justify that punishment.

Many people I speak with don't realize that in Florida, prosecutors have the power to send a child to the adult system without any judicial oversight through a practice commonly referred to as "direct file," and that their decision can't be reversed.

This legislation would prohibit direct file of 14- and 15-year-olds. It would also create a fitness hearing, allowing a child who has been transferred to adult court to request that the judge return them to juvenile court. Seventy percent of Florida voters surveyed in a recent poll by Right on Crime said that judges — not prosecutors — should decide whether a child is tried as an adult.

Children are different from adults, and we should treat them as such. It is time that my colleagues at the Capitol recognize that our constituents support meaningful juvenile justice reform and act. According to the Right on Crime poll, 74 percent of voters surveyed in Florida believe youth charged with crimes should stay in the juvenile justice system. So why are we funneling hundreds of our children into the adult system each and every year?

Our state can do better — for our youth and for all who call this beautiful state home — starting with the passage of HB 509 and SB 936 in the 2018 legislative session.

Sean Shaw, a Democrat, represents Tampa in the Florida House.

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