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Bill raises age for charging juveniles as adults

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Sen. Randolph Bracy

Sen. Randolph Bracy

Fourteen-year-olds could no longer be charged as adults for serious crimes at the discretion of state attorneys under a bill approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on February 15.

SB 474, by Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, would also set the minimum age at 17 to be charged as an adult for less serious felonies or for misdemeanors where the defendant had a previous felony conviction.

Bracy opened his committee presentation by reading a passage from “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” where author Bryan Stevenson talked about meeting with a 14-year-old sent to an adult prison and repeatedly gang raped.

The passage shows “the severity of what happens when you send children to adult prisons. I’ve talked to inmates on trips to prison facilities and what I just read to you is not an anomaly. This happens,” Bracy said. “When you talk about rehabilitating children, it’s almost impossible when they go to an adult prison. Recidivism is almost assured because of the trauma that happens when they go to an adult prison.”

Currently, state attorneys have the option to “direct file” in criminal court, bypassing juvenile courts, on 14 and 15-year-olds who are charged with murder, manslaughter, carjacking, carrying or displaying a gun during a crime, kidnapping, aggravated assault, aggravated child abuse, armed burglary, and similar crimes. Those 16 or 17 can be direct filed if charged with any felony or if charged with a misdemeanor and they have two or more prior offenses, one of which is a felony.

Florida did have laws mandating charging juveniles as adults for the most serious crimes, but those were repealed in 2019.

According to information provided to the committee, 788 juveniles were direct filed in the 2019-20 fiscal year. That compares to 1,095 in 2018-19 and 2,857 in 2008-09, although the figures from those years include an unspecified number of mandatory direct file cases.

SB 474 would set the age for charging the most serious felonies at 15 to 16 and set the minimum age for less serious felonies, or misdemeanors with a prior felony conviction, at 17.

The age changes would also affect cases involving a judicial waiver, where the juvenile court waives its jurisdiction over a juvenile charged with a crime or the state attorney requests a waiver. That happens in only 2% of cases where juveniles are charged as adults.

Bracy said last year’s reduction in children going to state prison is attributable to the elimination of mandatory direct filing, adding, “There’s still too many children going into adult prisons.”

The Florida PTA, the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the Florida ACLU, among several other organizations supported the bill. Barney Bishop, CEO of the Florida Smart Justice Alliance, opposed the bill, and in response to a question said state attorneys are constitutional officers who can be voted out of office if the public opposes their direct filing actions.

Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Lady Lake, also opposed the bill, saying while he agreed with Bracy that the state should protect juveniles sentenced as adults, he believes direct filing is necessary.

“I still think there are plenty of young people [whose] childhood was stolen and they are dangerous and. . . are not safe to be with other children,” he said. “They may be so harmed by life that they are an incredible danger to others and must be incarcerated…. Sometimes the hard answer, the tough answer, the uncomfortable answer is the only answer to keep everyone else safe.”

“Treatment is probably a better option than adult prison,” Bracy replied. “This is not a far reach; we’re just increasing the age by one year. Prosecutors can still prosecute children in adult courts. We’re just drawing a line that maybe 14 is too young.”

The bill passed 9-1. It next goes to the Criminal Justice and Rules committees. As yet, there is no companion bill in the House.

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