Criminal Injustice: States Unfairly Prosecute Children As Adults

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Ten years ago, in a historic decision, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized, as it had in earlier cases, that children who commit crimes are fundamentally different from adults – less mature biologically, more vulnerable and susceptible to negative pressures and influences, and therefore less culpable and more likely to change.

It’s one of the reasons this country has had a separate criminal justice system for children for the past century.

But even though this distinction between adults and children is widely accepted in the law and science, thousands of children accused of crimes are still prosecuted in the adult justice system each year – subjecting them to adult jails, where they are often denied adequate educational resources and the mental health and rehabilitative services they need.

No state prosecutes children as adults on felony charges more than Florida, where 4,446 children have been charged with felonies in the adult system over the past five years. And the statistics show that Black children accused of crimes are more likely than white children to be funneled into adult courts and lockups.

What makes Florida an outlier is its harsh “direct file” statute, enacted in 1978 as the era of mass incarceration was taking root in this country and politicians were racing to pass ever-tougher sentencing laws.

Florida’s law grants state prosecutors the extraordinary power to bring adult charges against children as young as 14 – without any review by a judge or a grand jury.

Juvenile court judges can also transfer a child’s case to the adult courts. But that rarely happens. In Florida, direct file prosecutions – those decided by prosecutors themselves – account for more than 98% of the adult charges brought against juveniles in the state.

Rewriting the statute has long been a goal of criminal justice reformers.

“The direct file issue is one we have worked on for more than a decade in this state,” said Scott McCoy, a deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center who oversaw the effort for several years. “There were 10-, 11-, 12,000 kids being ‘direct filed.’ That was back in the 2008-2009 time frame. The last time I checked, those numbers were coming down rather precipitously in large part due to the advocacy efforts that we pushed.”

Indeed, the number of juveniles arrested and charged as adults in Florida fell to a 10-year low in the 2020-2021 fiscal year, dropping below 800 cases.

But that decline coincided with a more than 20% drop in the number of overall juvenile arrests. The percentage of arrested juveniles who were tried as adults actually increased last year – from 3.2% in 2019-2020 to 3.7%.

“Arrests in the COVID year may have dropped because kids were just not out and about as much and not in school and all that,” McCoy said. “But even with that, Florida has the highest number of direct files for felonies in the country.”