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Legislation seeks to reform Florida’s practice of prosecuting children as adults

The SPLC is supporting legislative efforts to rein in the power of Florida prosecutors to push children into adult courts and prisons without judicial oversight.

Proposed legislation to rein in the unchecked power of Florida prosecutors to push children into adult courts represents a good first step toward reforming a system that needlessly derails the lives of children, the SPLC said today.

Several bills filed in the Florida legislature this session seek to reduce the number of children tried in the adult criminal justice system – more than 10,000 over the last five years, mostly for nonviolent offenses. 

Under a bill filed by Rep. Katie Edwards, for example, a prosecutor would be allowed to try a child in adult court only for a serious, violent offense.

Another bill, proposed by Sen. Thad Altman, would require that judges – not prosecutors – decide whether a child’s case should be transferred to adult court. Altman’s bill also would require that children be housed only in juvenile facilities. Currently, once children are charged as adults, they are housed in facilities intended for adults and ill-equipped to meet their needs. 

Additional bills have been filed by Rep. Bobby Powell, Sen. Darren Soto and Sen. Geraldine Thompson.

“Children are fundamentally different from adults,” said Tania Galloni, managing attorney for the SPLC’s Florida office. “Florida needs to create a fair system that holds children accountable while providing them with the services and opportunities they need to get back on track. An adult conviction has lifelong consequences for a child, including the loss of educational, employment and voting opportunities.”

Florida prosecutors currently have the discretion to transfer children’s cases to adult court without the approval of a judge. In fact, 98 percent of the children pushed into the state’s adult courts over the last five years were transferred without a hearing. This power, known as “direct file,” also allows prosecutors to threaten children with adult prosecution in order to extract a guilty plea.

Unchecked prosecutorial discretion creates disparities based on jurisdiction. Compared to Miami-Dade County, for example, children charged with felonies are almost twice as likely to be charged as adults in Hillsborough and Duval counties, three times as likely in Palm Beach County and six times as likely in Escambia County.  

At a minimum, a determination by a judge, based on established criteria, is necessary to ensure consistency, accountability and equal justice from one jurisdiction to the next.

A broad-based coalition, which includes the James Madison Institute, supports the need for reforming the state’s practice of trying children as adults.