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Rep. Edwards delves into criminal issues affecting kids

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Rep. Katie Edwards
REP. KATIE A. EDWARDS, D-Plantation, questions a presenter before the Agriculture & Natural Resources Subcommittee.

Rep. Edwards delves into criminal issues affecting kids

‘Agriculture is my bread and butter livelihood, and I thought it was better to be more well-rounded’

Senior Editor

As a former executive director of the Dade County Farm Bureau, Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Sunrise, might seem an unlikely prospect to lead the charge for reforming laws under which juveniles can be charged as adults — also known as direct filing — in criminal court.

It was certainly a circuitous route. After graduating from Clemson University with a degree in agricultural and applied economics, she landed the top job with the 4,500-member Farm Bureau at age 22.

“It was a diverse agricultural community. I have dealt with every type of agriculture in this state,” she said, including tomato growers, nurseries, fish farmers, beekeepers, and more. Those duties included working with county and state agencies and lobbying the Legislature.

After several years, “I felt I could do more. I wanted to have a better grasp of the lawyerly part of it,” Edwards said. “I live by the rule, ‘She who makes the rules, rules.’”

So she applied and was accepted at Drake University Law School in Des Moines, Iowa, which has a program in agricultural law.Edwards flew to Des Moines in February 2008, the dead of winter: “I got off the plane and said, ‘Get me back to Miami.’”

A week later, she was in orientation at the Florida International University College of Law, where she had also been accepted. There she learned criminal law from H. Scott Fingerhut, currently chair of the Bar’s Criminal Procedure Rules Committee and a former chair of the Criminal Law Section.

“He was a phenomenal law professor and a great friend,” Edwards said. “That’s when I began looking at mandatory minimum sentencing and direct filing. . . . Agriculture is my bread and butter livelihood, and I thought it was better to be more well-rounded.”

“Well, before she came to law school and stepped into my classroom, Rep. Edwards had fully made up her mind to do all she could for as many as she could,” Fingerhut said. “Her devotion to positivity and fair play, her laser focus on the welfare of others — children, farmers, and our environment, especially — are in the spirit of our most effective and selfless change-makers.

“Katie is tireless, ethical, and smart — equal parts courage, creativity, and compassion — and represents the very best of FIU Law, and the true and the great in public service.”

Edwards public career began in 2010, when former Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West, approached her about running for the Legislature. She ran in District 118 in Miami-Dade County and lost a hard-fought race to Rep. Frank Artilles, garnering 44 percent of the vote in a year when Democrats overall lost five seats in the state House. Edwards said she remains proud that she and Artilles ran clean campaigns and “at the end of the day, we were friends.”

After districts were reapportioned in 2010, Edwards moved back to Plantation where she was born and raised and was appointed to the city’s planning and zoning board. In 2012, she ran and was elected to the House in District 98. The campaigning, Edwards said, was a valuable lesson.

“If you’re going to have empathy and do a good job, you’ve got to learn other people’s districts,” she said. “You have to have an appreciation of the demographics, the economics, and other people’s issues. I’ve tried to be a team player and work across the aisle and appreciate other people’s districts as well, and where they come from, and why they have to take certain positions at times.”

Her first bill “dealt with mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and that became law,” Edwards said. “Sentencing someone with eight hydrocodone pills to three years in state prison didn’t make sense.”

Direct filing for juveniles into adult court is a more complex issue, she said.

“In the abstract, it’s very easy to stand in front of a large group and say for a first offense that ‘kids are stupid and they make mistakes,’” Edwards said. “A juvenile’s brain, they’re developing. Their appreciation for their actions and the consequences are not the same as an adult’s. When you are the victim of a crime and see kids engage in activities that are adult-like, it’s very difficult. I do think that kids make mistakes.”

Eleventh Circuit Public Defender Carlos Martinez worked with Edwards and other legislators on the issue.

“She can work on both sides of the aisle. She pulled legislation off in her first year, so she had to work on both sides,” he said. “She’s a respected member, even though she’s a Democrat from South Florida. What Katie has personally is drive; she has a real heart for kids issues,” Martinez said.

“She understands when it comes to delinquents. They are troubled kids and they should not be defined by mistakes they made as children. I think she’s a strong legislator, and I think she’s gearing herself toward leadership.”

While the Senate passed a bill limiting prosecutors’ ability to direct file, the House version died in committee.

Edwards said the issue will be back: “There needs to be a teachable moment; there needs to be a consensus.. . . I believe you will see a direct file reform bill filed until we finally get meaningful direct file reform and that’s a balancing act: making sure the punishment is enough to deter and the child can continue to move on.”

She also favors a more comprehensive look at the criminal justice system, especially the criminalization of addiction problems.

“If we could have a special session devoted to criminal justice issues, I would go back and ask, ‘What is a crime?’ It’s whatever society says it is,” Edwards said. “I think there is a great value of going back and looking at the issues. What type of behaviors and actions are worthy of punishment and rehabilitation? We forget, by and large, the types of issues people deal with day-to-day: property crime, identity theft, the use of the internet as a method of committing crimes against people.”

She said she would like to see less emphasis on drug and addiction problems in the criminal justice system and reliance on alternatives.

“If individuals admit they are heroin users and they can’t quit, provide needles so diseases like HIV and hepatitis C don’t spread,” Edward said.

Beyond criminal justice, Edwards sees environmental, issues occupying the Legislature’s time — something her agricultural and legal backgrounds prepared her for.

“I represent farmers and cattle ranchers and I also represent construction companies,” she said.

“Two days a week, I travel all around South and Central Florida, so I’m in jeans. I have a nice pair of work boots. I learn on these farms how water systems work. You’ve got to be able to work the land and be out there and see how things work,” Edwards said.

At the Legislature, “We are going to have to really and truly address and prioritize spring protection,” she said. “Lake Okeechobee has got to be a big part of the equation. We have to address water quality. I think we’re going to, hopefully, have a year where there are bipartisan issues that have results rather than just buy land.

“Floridians want clean, cheap water. That is how our challenge is defined. That is going to take a lot of hard work and solutions. That will take a lot of capital infrastructure with cities and counties and water management districts.”

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