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SPLC examines broken justice system during Youth Justice Awareness Month

SPLC events in four states highlight the need to reform the justice system to treat children like children.

Across the Deep South, the Southern Poverty Law Center worked with community groups this October as part of Youth Justice Awareness Month, a national effort to highlight the serious and devastating consequences of sending children into adult courts, jails and prisons.

The SPLC uses this effort organized by the Campaign for Youth Justice to draw attention to the plight of young people tried as adults and housed in adult prisons in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida – four states where the SPLC is diligently working to protect the rights of these children.

“Misguided justice policies are taking a terrible toll on young people across this country,” said Rhonda Brownstein, SPLC legal director. “These policies have not only failed to keep our communities safe, they needlessly ruin young lives. Every year, Youth Justice Awareness Month provides us with a great opportunity to reach out to communities and highlight this important issue.”

Florida is a prime example of a state in need of reform. The state transfers more children to adult court than any other – 10,000 over a five-year period. A stunning 98 percent of them were transferred to adult court without a hearing before a judge.

That’s because Florida largely puts the decision of prosecuting a child as an adult in the hands of the prosecutor – not a judge – through a statutory power known as “direct file.” This not only pushes children into the adult system, but creates obstacles once they’re out of the system and branded as a felon.

The SPLC has been instrumental in developing a broad-based coalition for reform. Although there is much work ahead, there are encouraging signs that more people are recognizing the need for change. Lawmakers have introduced bipartisan legislation in both houses of the legislature to restore the role of judges in determining whether a child should be transferred to adult court.

Four Florida newspapers have joined the call to reform the “direct file” statute that has placed many young people in the custody of the state’s beleaguered Department of Corrections. This month, the Florida Association of School Psychologists also added their voice to an array of experts who agree that adult prison is no place for a child.

To help raise awareness during Youth Justice Awareness Month, the SPLC will co-sponsor a screening of the film 15 to Life: Kenneth’s Story in Jacksonville tomorrow at the Murray Hill Theatre. The documentary tells the story about a Tampa teen sentenced to four life-without-parole sentences. Locked up for a decade, he thought he would die in prison, but a U.S. Supreme Court decision could set him free. The documentary follows the young man’s struggle for redemption.

Earlier this month, the SPLC participated in a panel discussion in Pensacola about the dangers of sending young people into the adult system. The event was hosted by the local League of Women Voters, the Escambia Youth Justice Coalition, the American Civil Liberties Union and the SPLC.

Here are other SPLC Youth Justice Awareness Month events.

  • In Alabama, the SPLC will screen the new Fusion documentary Prison Kids today at the Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery. The film features several SPLC experts and clients as it looks at young people held in prisons and jails.
  • In Mississippi, the SPLC raised awareness about youth justice with its Fifth Annual Youth Art, Poetry and Justice Slam, which spotlighted the art work of local high school and college students. 
  • In Louisiana, the SPLC hosted the #YouthSpeak Talent Showcase in New Orleans with other organizations in the city. The event featured artwork and live performances by young people highlighting the injustices they experience in their lives.