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Lawmakers Push For More Juvenile Sentencing Guidelines

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Though it likely won’t become law this session, lawmakers are considering a proposal which would change the way prosecutors decide whether to charge kids as adults. Its supporters say the state needs more rules to protect juveniles. But detractors say prosecutors need leeway to do their jobs – and may be doing it better year after year.

If a minor commits a serious crime, a state attorney has a tough choice: pursue the case against the child in the juvenile justice system or file charges as though the offender were legally an adult. The outcome of the decision varies by situation, but the consideration of how to make it varies by prosecutor. Rep. Bobby Powell (D-Riviera Beach) hopes to standardize the process.

“It’s done differently throughout different jurisdictions," Powell says. "And I believe that Florida is the number one state in the nation when it comes to direct filing juveniles. And we’re really throwing away the future of a lot of our youth.”

Powell’s bill likely won’t be considered this legislative session, because Monday’s meeting of the House Criminal Justice Committee is slated to be the panel's last for 2014. But the committee’s members are working with Powell to determine if more strictures are necessary in the direct file process. Rep. Charles Van Zant (R-Keystone Heights) envisions a rubric prosecutors could use to determine how they’d file charges.

“It just seems like we could figure out some matrix there that would allow the prosecuting attorney and the defense attorneys to say ‘OK, here is the situation, this minor is in this position,’” Van Zant says.

The current system, opponents argue, allows state attorneys looking to be seen as tough on crime to try minors as adults and sentence them to prisons with offenders many times their age.

“Direct file, according to research, is not a deterrent. And it increases the recidivism rate, even when compared to similar crimes that are handled in the juvenile justice system,” says Charles Branch, a youth pastor in Pensacola and a founding member of the Escambia Youth Justice Coalition. He says the system doesn’t account for the differences – developmental, psychological and physical – between kids and adults. And what’s more, he argues, it doesn’t give enough direction for how to deal with kids caught in unthinkable circumstances, like one he knew from his church.

“Four years ago this month, Warren – a 14-year-old eighth grader – a small, quiet, academically- and artistically-talented boy in my church and in my youth choir, shot and killed his dad while they were watching TV,” he says.

Warren is now in an adult prison, serving time he received in a plea deal. That, says Human Rights Watch lobbyist Natalie Kato, isn’t helping him.

“Seventy percent of children who are direct filed have some form of mental illness," Kato says. "So I think it’s really important to keep in mind that if we put these children into the adult system, they’re going to be missing out on the age-based and age-appropriate programs and treatment programs they can receive.”

But is the bill even necessary?

“Over the past five years, the number of direct files have actually decreased by a whopping 53 percent,” says 16th District State Attorney Catherine Vogel. She represents the Florida Keys and says far fewer Florida children go straight to adult court than did as recently as 2008 -- down from 3,280 to 1,535.

And despite criticism from the committee’s Vice Chair, Rep. Ray Pilon (R-Sarasota), that certain counties, such as Duval and Broward, contribute the majority of cases, some say that’s just not true. The Jacksonville State Attorney’s office declined a taped interview, but a spokeswoman sent along numbers from the Department of Juvenile Justice showing their circuit has cut in half the number of such cases in the last five years.

But that’s the same decline seen around the state. And the numbers seem to bear out Pilon’s point. Six of the state’s 20 judicial circuits charged at least 150 juveniles as adults last year. Those six still account for more than half of all such cases in Florida.