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Keeping children out of Florida’s adult criminal justice system would have positive economic impact, study says

If all children in Florida’s adult criminal justice system were returned to the juvenile justice system, the added economic value would outweigh the costs, according to a study that was released today.

The study, titled “An Economic and Fiscal Analysis of Direct File Reform Proposals,” details how Florida’s laws for prosecuting children as adults differ from those of other states, and how the laws within Florida are applied unevenly in different counties. The study also analyzes the financial impact of reducing the number of children who are sent to the adult criminal justice system.

The Center for Economic Forecasting and Analysis (CEFA) at Florida State University prepared the study for the SPLC. The SPLC contracted with CEFA in September 2018 to conduct an economic analysis of legislative proposals that envision – among other juvenile justice reforms – a due process hearing with a judge to decide whether children who were sent to the adult criminal justice system should return to the juvenile system.

Julie Harrington, PhD, and Martijn Niekus, PhD, who co-authored the report, analyzed five scenarios based on juvenile-related direct costs, and concluded that if all children were moved from the adult criminal justice system in Florida to the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice, the net added economic impact would be $3.6 million, exceeding the net costs of $2.4 million.

Florida prosecutes more children as adults for felonies than any other state, and a majority of youth are sent to the adult criminal justice system at the sole discretion of a prosecutor through a process known as “direct file.”

Florida is one of just 14 states with direct file laws. Of those 14, it is one of only three states without a process for judges to review those prosecutorial decisions as part of a due process hearing.

When children are transferred to the adult criminal justice system, they are burdened with adult felony convictions that create barriers to education, employment and housing. They are more likely to be victimized by guards or incarcerated adults, more likely to attempt or die by suicide, and more likely to reoffend.

“We know that when children are sent to the adult criminal justice system, it damages our youth and our communities, but that has not been enough to convince our lawmakers to pass laws that would put our children first,” said Scott McCoy, senior policy counsel for the SPLC Action Fund. “Money talks. Hopefully, seeing the economic impact that sending children from the adult criminal justice system to the juvenile justice system could have on our state will finally move our legislators in the right direction.”

The Florida Legislature is considering several bills this year that would affect children in the adult system. SB 876, HB 575, and HB 1293 would create a due process hearing before a judge in which a child can request a return to juvenile court. SB 850 and HB 339 would increase ages for children eligible for transfer and eliminate mandatory transfers. SB 870 would house children in juvenile facilities while they await trial in adult court.

“Our legislators should do everything in their power to set Florida’s children up for success,” McCoy said. “Keeping children out of adult prisons and jails would be a start. The adult criminal justice system is no place for a child.”

Photo by Melanie Stetson Freeman/AP Images