12/16/2011

Injustice in Florida: 12-Year-Old Child Being Prosecuted as Adult

In Jacksonville, Fla., 12-year-old Cristian Fernandez is facing charges of homicide and aggravated child abuse in the adult criminal justice system. If convicted, Cristian will receive the mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

At the Southern Poverty Law Center we are working to ensure justice and fair treatment for all children, and believe that the adult criminal justice system is no place for any child.

Many child advocates have urged State Attorney Angela Corey to handle Cristian's case through the juvenile justice system, rather than charge him as an adult, so that he will not face life in prison without parole or be forced to accept a plea deal in the adult system that would profoundly damage his ability to lead a productive life once he is released.

In defense of her decision to try Cristian as an adult, Corey said, "In the juvenile system, we can only incarcerate or have [Cristian] contained for not even two years, and that is not an option to protect the community. However, we understand at his young age he deserves a chance at rehabilitation. The plea deal we have offered would combine those two things."

But this is just not true.

Florida law grants the juvenile system broad discretion to handle the treatment and rehabilitation of children like Cristian, including the power to imprison a child until he has been sufficiently rehabilitated. Because of this, the juvenile justice system is better situated to protect public safety. The juvenile courts can retain jurisdiction over children until the age of 21. Most importantly, the juvenile system promotes treatment and rehabilitation — including requiring mental health treatment where necessary — while the adult system simply does not.

The fact is that the juvenile justice system offers a wide array of options for disposition, recognizing that children have unique needs, challenges, and potential for rehabilitation.

Given Cristian's history of trauma and his very young age, he should be granted the opportunity for individualized juvenile disposition aimed at providing the rehabilitation and treatment a child needs. Florida's children and the community deserve nothing less.