Could More Juvenile Justice Reforms Be On The Way?

Nov 6, 2015

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Florida lawmakers are considering different ways to help the state’s juvenile offenders. The aim is to help them succeed in life and make sure they don’t head to the prison system.

Rep. Chris Latvala (R-Clearwater) says when he was in high school, he used to tease some of his friends by toilet-papering their houses.

He never got in trouble for it with the law, but Latvala says he’s heard of stories in his district where teenagers doing similar kinds of mischief faced felony charges.

“There was a young lady in my district who threw an egg outside a car window at one of her friends after school one day,” he said. “She was 16-years-old and the cope pulled her over, and arrested her for a felony. So, I never quite threw an egg at somebody. Actually, I know I’ve never thrown an egg at somebody, whether it was a friend or enemy. But, I think rolling someone’s house classifies as destruction of property and what not.”

He says that teenaged foster kid is now an adult, but she’s still facing the consequences from that felony charge and it makes it harder for her to find a job.

Latvala says the process to expunge a minor’s record can be difficult, and he hopes a bill he filed will make it easier by streamlining that process.

Under his measure, only the records of minors who are not serious or habitual offenders can be expunged. And, they could start that process at age 21, instead of the current age of 24.

“It allows that person to have a clean slate a lot earlier than somebody who’s 24, and whether it’s through employment or different applications they may file,” Latvala added.

And, Thomas Fair says it will be a big help for children within the foster care system. He’s the former President of Tallahassee’s chapter of Florida Youth Shine, an advocacy group for foster kids. As a former foster kid himself, Fair says he recalls getting into trouble at the age of 11 and getting acquainted with the juvenile system—a similar situation he says others fall into.

“A lot of us whenever we turned 18, though, we still, when trying to get into the military, or get inside school, get inside a dorm, or work for the state or work for the kids,” said Fair. “A lot of us…it’s a hindrance, based on the records we had when we were children. So, I’m in strong support in this bill, and I think that this really will help a lot of youth have some of the great opportunities that your children have as well.”

Another bill makes changes to Florida’s direct file process—where a juvenile can be charged as an adult, at the discretion of a prosecutor. Under Rep. Katie Edwards’ (D-Plantation) bill, that decision is shifted to judges.

“Instead, it narrows the list of direct file eligible offenses, and for the rest, allows a judge to make the decision to transfer that child to an adult court,” said Edwards. “Under this bill, 14 and 15-year-olds would be eligible for direct file would fall into three categories of crimes: murder, manslaughter, and sexual battery that involved a weapon or where there is serious personal injury. For 16 and 17-year-olds, we’re looking at those same offenses, an additional enumeration of 14 offenses that range from home invasion, robbery to carjacking and also includes aggravated animal cruelty.”

Several people spoke in favor of the measure, like Leon County Public Defender Nancy Daniels representing the Florida Public Defenders Association. She says there have already been times when the state legislature has made the decision to take some discretion away from prosecutors.

“You did it years ago for the drug court statute, because there was a desire for nonviolent drug offenders to be able to get into drug courts without being vetoed by the State Attorneys,” said Daniels. “You did it with Veterans Courts, because there was a desire for veterans to be able to go into special treatment courts, even if the State Attorneys did not agree with that. And, we think this is one of those cases where you need to trim the prosecutorial discretion and keep Florida from being an outlier and keep Florida from being the one that’s sending the most children to prison in our country.”

But, Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association’s Buddy Jacobs thinks the bill isn’t needed. He says over the years, the direct filing numbers have declined.

“And, if you look at where we used to have to direct file—now we’re down 52 percent—something’s working,” said Jacobs. “Somebody said one time, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ And, that’s kind of our position that we certainly, we’ve submitted a bill in the House and we’re going to submit it down here, where we have made adjustments to it. And, just because we don’t agree, doesn’t mean we’re not trying to work.”

Some lawmakers were concerned with not having enough data on the issue, while others floated the idea of getting rid of direct filing altogether. But, Edwards says for the sake of compromise, this is the product she’s hoping to move forward with. And, she and Jacobs intend to be in talks over their respective proposals. So far, like Latvala’s bill, the measure has unanimously passed its first Senate panel.

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