A plan to reform how kids get tried for crimes as adults cleared its first hurdle Monday, passing the Senate Criminal Justice Committee over the objections of prosecutors.
State attorneys, who would lose some discretion in deciding which juvenile cases get treated as adult crimes, oppose legislation that would severely restrict the situations when the “direct file” process can be used. Direct file simply refers to a prosecutor deciding to file adult charges against a minor. Children can also be tried as adults on a judge’s orders.
Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, and Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, sponsor the bill (SB 314). It passed the committee by a unanimous vote Monday, drawing support from Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, who opposed similar legislation last year.
“(The Department of Juvenile Justice) estimates that passing this legislation would result in at least 644 additional youth remaining in the juvenile justice system,” said Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, in support of the bill. “If we can save those 644 young people from going deeper into the system and coming out more criminal than they started, then we’ve done a lot to actually cut costs in our adult system. And maybe they’ll be mentors for some other young people.”
Edwards and other supporters say they want to see direct file be used less frequently because children make mistakes and shouldn’t be treated as adults. In particular, they point to jurisdictions where prosecutors more frequently use direct file, saying they want a more consistent application of the law.
So the bill sets out certain crimes that are eligible for direct file based on the age of the victim: mostly violent offenses including murder, manslaughter and certain cases of rape. Bradley is pushing for the list to be widened to include all rapes.
But prosecutors fear they could lose an important tool in protecting public safety.
Buddy Jacobs, a lobbyist for the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, told committee members that prosecutors use discretion when they choose to use direct file, pointing to decreasing numbers of cases in recent years. Still, he argued, restrictions will make it harder for prosecutors to put children with serious criminal pasts in the adult justice system.
“Kids do stupid stuff,” Jacobs told committee members. “But there’s terrible things they do, too."