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Coalition fights to keep Florida youth out of adult justice system

Florida prosecutes more children in adult courts than any other state.

These youth are held in adult jails, often in isolation, while they await trial. They have no opportunity to challenge the state attorney’s unilateral decision to charge them as adults. If convicted of a felony, they forever lose their civil rights before they ever have a chance to vote, have steady employment or rent an apartment. 

We must do better.

The SPLC Action Fund has partnered with more than 20 organizations in Florida to end this injustice through the No Place for a Child coalition. This bipartisan coalition is committed to advancing juvenile justice reforms, including diversion and rehab programs, workforce development and ending the unfair system of “direct file” that allows children to be tried as adults.

Direct file in Florida is the process whereby prosecutors can charge juveniles as adults without any review from a judge. Out of the three ways in which a juvenile can be transferred to adult court, direct file is the most common. In fiscal year 2015-16, 99% of transferred children were via direct file, whereas less than 1% were transferred through the other two methods – judicial waiver and grand jury indictment, research shows.

In Florida, there are two types of direct file: discretionary and mandatory. Discretionary direct file happens when the prosecutor makes the judgment call that adult punishment is in the public’s best interest, and the case meets other guidelines set in statute. Mandatory direct file primarily considers age at the time of offense or the type of offense. However, many of these kids are going into the adult system simply at the prosecutors’ choice rather than the prosecutors having their hands tied to some degree due to mandatory direct file guidelines.

As a result, the No Place for a Child coalition has been hosting a series of town halls with state legislators, broadcast via the Facebook Live app. The town halls are an opportunity for elected officials from both parties to interact with the public during the COVID-19 pandemic on the issue of juvenile justice reform.

During the town halls, we have an elected official and a three- to four-person panel representing organizations that are part of the No Place for a Child coalition or other organizations seeking juvenile justice reform in Florida. All the panelists have a list of questions to ask the legislator. The elected officials are given the questions in advance to prepare an answer that will help begin a dialogue about juvenile justice and criminal legal reform. During the forums, elected officials recognized direct file must be reformed, but it’s clear there is much work to be done for lawmakers to come together to end this destructive policy while balancing public safety concerns expressed by some lawmakers.

The host also fields questions live from the comment section. Since the launch of the No Place for a Child Coalition Town Hall series, we have gotten a strong response from viewers. Currently, we are averaging about 200 Facebook views per town hall.

To view past town halls, the schedule of upcoming town hall events or to request more information, visit the No Place for a Child Facebook page at facebook.com/noplaceforachild.

Donn Scott Jr. is a policy associate for the SPLC Action Fund in Florida.