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SPLC: Number of children prosecuted as adults in Florida declines

The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice released new data this week that shows a 20 percent drop from the previous year in the number of juveniles who have been transferred to adult court.

A total of 904 children in Florida were transferred to adult court in fiscal year FY 2017-18, down from 1,128 in FY 2016-17.

While there was also a continued downward trend in the overall number of juvenile arrests, children of color continue to be disproportionately arrested and prosecuted as adults in Florida. In 76.5 percent of cases transferred to adult court, the child was black or Latinx. Children of color made up 65.8 percent of juvenile arrests statewide.

“It is encouraging to see that youth arrests and the number of children prosecuted as adults in Florida have declined, but the fact that we’re still sending hundreds of children – disproportionately children of color – into the adult criminal justice system every year is troubling,” said Scott McCoy, senior policy counsel for the SPLC Action Fund, a member of the No Place for a Child coalition, which seeks to reduce the number of children who are prosecuted as adults in Florida’s criminal justice system. “Florida prosecutes more children as adults for felonies than any other state – often at the sole discretion of prosecutors.”

The significant drop in the number of children who were prosecuted as adults in Florida can be attributed in part to a growing swell of community support across the state for reducing adult prosecutions of juveniles. Earlier this year, the Escambia County Commission and the Pensacola City Commission adopted resolutions calling for youth to stay in the juvenile justice system instead of being transferred to adult court. The St. Petersburg City Council and Leon County Commission also passed similar resolutions this year. The Palm Beach County Commission is set to vote on a similar resolution in January.

The First Judicial Circuit, which includes Escambia County (where Pensacola is located), had the most transfers of juveniles to adult court at 73. Nevertheless, the new data signifies positive change in that circuit, where 121 children were prosecuted as adults in the previous fiscal year.

The number of children prosecuted as adults in FY 2017-18 in the First Judicial Circuit was higher than more populous circuits, such as the Eleventh Judicial Circuit (Miami-Dade County) with 70 adult transfers, the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit (Hillsborough County, including Tampa) with 71 adult transfers, and the Fourth Judicial Circuit (Duval County, including Jacksonville) with 36 adult transfers.

The SPLC Action Fund, part of the No Place for a Child coalition, will support three bills during the 2019 Legislature that are aimed at reforming adult prosecutions of children in Florida.

One bill would allow judges to determine where to house children pending trial in adult court. Children charged as adults in Florida are required to be housed in adult jails, which can cause physical and mental trauma for children and create barriers to education. This legislation would create a presumption that children awaiting trial in adult court be held in juvenile facilities unless a judge determines that there are safety reasons requiring the child to be held in the adult jail.

The second bill would create a judicial fitness hearing, which would provide an opportunity for a judge – not a prosecutor – to determine whether a child should be in adult court or return to the juvenile justice system. Most children charged as adults in Florida are transferred at the sole discretion of the prosecutor without any input from a judge.

The final bill would set parameters for adult prosecution of youth by eliminating mandatory transfer to adult court, eliminating the ability of prosecutors to transfer 14- and 15-year-olds without judicial oversight, and setting a minimum indictment age of 14 for adult charges.

“When children are pushed into the adult system, they are branded with a felony conviction that will create lifelong obstacles to finding housing, education and employment,” McCoy said. “They return to their communities more likely to be arrested again. And our children and communities are worse off for it. Our children have a propensity for change, but only if we afford them the opportunity to do so. We must enact legislative reforms that provide such opportunity. The adult criminal justice system is no place for a child.”

To review the data on the number of children prosecuted as adults in the DJJ data chart, select “Youth” in the “Arrests/Youth/Pop” field and “Adult Transfer” in the “DJJ Status” field.