A bill making its way through the Florida Legislature could radically reform the way children are handled in the criminal justice system. The measure would put stricter limits on when and how juveniles can be tried as adults.
Florida is one of 15 states that allow prosecutors to unilaterally decide to charge children as adults. That process is called direct filing.
The proposed law would permit kids’ lawyers to challenge the move, transferring some discretion from state attorneys to judges.
Rob Mason is the juvenile director with the 4th Circuit Public Defender’s Office, which covers Clay, Nassau and Duval counties. He’s in favor of taking some power out of prosecutors’ hands.
“Once the prosecutor makes the decision to send a case to adult court, in 12 of the 15 states that can be challenged before there is any finding of guilt or any type of plea. We are one of three states that does not have that,” he said.
According to No Place for a Child — a bipartisan nonprofit pushing the legislation — Florida charges more kids as adults than any other state and 98 percent are through direct filing.
A Florida Times-Union analysis found the amount of direct files for juveniles in the Fourth Circuit went down nearly 80 percent after State Attorney Melissa Nelson defeated Angela Corey in 2016.
Nelson’s office said she has direct filed kids as adults 22 times since taking office. The Times-Union found Corey direct-filed 63 children during her last six months.
A suspect is normally charged as a juvenile until age 18.
Mason praises Nelson for turning a new leaf in Northeast Florida.
“Up until Ms. Nelson came in, there were issues just statewide. Even though our numbers had been average when you compared them to much of the state, I would still say that we were somewhat of an outlier in the way the cases were being prosecuted,” he said.
But she won’t be state attorney forever, so advocates say the new law is necessary.
Direct filing isn’t the only way children can be charged as adults. They can also be indicted by a grand jury or receive a judicial waiver. Should the legislation, sponsored by Sen. Bobby Powell (D-West Palm Beach), become law it would ban the grand jury indictments for children under 14, while prohibiting the direct filing of 14- and 15-year-olds.
A judge who wants to issue adult sanctions on a child would also be required to justify that decision in judicial waiver cases.
The bill’s Senate version was passed by the Criminal Justice Committee and is awaiting a hearing in the Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice. If it’s approved by that panel, it has one more committee stop before hitting the Senate floor.
The House version of the measure has yet to be heard by a committee.
Meanwhile, a spokesman with State Attorney Melissa Nelson’s office declined to comment on any pending legislation before lawmakers.