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DIRECT FILE:   Trying Juveniles as Adults in Criminal Court: An Analysis of State Transfer Provisions. Direct File. Statutes in 15 States define a category of cases in which the prosecutor may determine whether to proceed initially in juvenile or criminal court.

IMMATURE-DEFINITION=not fully developed.  ((having or showing emotional or intellectual development appropriate to someone younger.)) 

TEENAGER -DEFINITION=a person aged from 13 to 19 years. (NOT ADULT )




Adolescent Maturity and the Brain: The Promise and Pitfalls of Neurosciences Research in Adolescent Health Policy!

Age-based policies are not exceptional; policies are frequently enacted in the face of contradictory or nonexistent empirical support [10]. Although neurosciences has been called upon to determine adulthood, there is little empirical evidence to support age 18, the current legal age of majority, as an accurate marker of adult capacities. Less clear is whether neuroimaging, at present, helps to inform age-based determinations of maturity. If so, can generic guidelines be established, or is individual variation so great as to preclude establishing a biological benchmark for adult-like maturity of judgment?

Florida transfers more children out of the juvenile system and into adult court than any other state. In the last five years alone, more than 12,000 juvenile crime suspects in Florida were transferred to the adult court system. New statistics developed by Human Rights Watch based on official Florida state data show that more than 60 percent of the juveniles Florida transferred to adult court during this period were charged with nonviolent felonies. Only 2.7 percent were prosecuted for murder.

Whether a particular youth accused of a particular crime in Florida ends up in adult court is in an important sense arbitrary. The new data show that nearly 98 percent of the juveniles in adult court in Florida end up there pursuant to the state’s “direct file” statute, which gives prosecutors unfettered discretion to move a wide range of juvenile cases to adult court (including any 16- and 17-year-old accused of a felony), with no involvement by a judge whatsoever. The data show that this discretion is being exercised differently by prosecutors in different judicial circuits within Florida. Too often, as detailed below, the same crime is treated differently depending on the predilections of the prosecutor where the crime occurs: different judicial circuit, different outcome. And there is evidence that racial bias is affecting that exercise of discretion with respect to certain crimes.

Most states in the United States do not allow for direct file. International law requires that children, including those accused of crimes, be treated as children. And for good reason. Neurosciences, recent US Supreme Court decisions, and a by-now large and growing literature show that children, including 16- and 17-year-old juveniles, are different and in important respects less culpable than adults who commit the same crimes, and more amenable to rehabilitation, a key objective that the juvenile system is designed to achieve. At present, however, while teens 17 and under cannot legally vote, drink, or buy cigarettes in Florida, they can be branded as felons for life.

Florida’s direct file law is a remnant of the “super-predator” panic of the late 1980s, the fear that America was becoming prey to a new generation of particularly depraved and violent teenagers. The panic was born of an overreaction to a nationwide spike in juvenile crime that has long since abated. Even the professor who coined the term now acknowledges that the super-predator prediction “was never fulfilled.”

Florida’s direct file law is not effectively serving public safety. Indeed, recent studies link transfers of juveniles to adult court to increases, not decreases, in recidivism. And, as this report shows, “direct file” is having negative, at times devastating, effects on the lives of thousands of children and their families.




Human Rights Watch spoke to over 100 youth and family members of youth charged directly in adult court by Florida’s prosecutors. Young people described feeling confused and abandoned once in adult court. Many encountered violence upon entering adult jails and prisons. In nearly every case documented in this report, they pled guilty to felonies that will mark them forever without having a full understanding of the repercussions. Some of them were unable, even months and years after entering their guilty pleas, to explain the process that resulted in their criminal convictions.

Florida should reverse course and adopt an approach grounded more firmly in fact and reason. Florida’s legislature should start by eliminating “direct file” and instead require that all decisions to transfer juveniles to adult court be made by a judge after a hearing, with a strong presumption that all children 17 and under should remain in the juvenile system.

Statewide, Florida is also treating its black male youth more harshly than their white counterparts. Black boys make up 27.2 percent of children arrested for crime, but account for 51.4 percent of youth sent to adult court; whereas white boys make up 28 percent of children arrested and account for only 24.4 percent of youth tried in adult court. A simple explanation might be that the crimes of black boys are more serious than those of white boys; Human Rights Watch looked into transfer rates for different categories of crime in an effort to find out. While for some crimes the transfer rates are similar, for others there is a marked disparity, particularly in certain judicial circuits. The 13th Circuit, for example, transferred 8.8 percent of white youths arrested for drug felonies to adult court; for black youth arrested for the same crimes, that figure was 30.1 percent, more than three times higher. The available data do not include important details of the cases that may partly account for the disparities, including the drug quantities involved and the criminal histories of the offenders, but the consistency and size of the racial disparities nonetheless are of serious concern.

The racial disparities and the variations between circuits are disturbing evidence of the unchecked discretion of Florida’s prosecutors. They are also problematic because the youth charged in Florida’s adult courts suffer extraordinarily severe consequences. Nearly every child charged and convicted in adult court ends up with an adult felony record that will haunt him or her for life. Many will serve time in Florida’s adult prisons. Even those who are charged in adult court but ultimately have their cases dismissed discover that their adult arrest records haunt them when they apply for jobs or housing. The permanent consequences of a felony conviction or a felony arrest record are difficult for any person to live with, but this is particularly so for a child. Those with convictions are barred by law from many types of employment, and suffer many other deprivations, including permanent loss of the right to vote.

The broad discretion the direct file statute gives prosecutors also has a corrupting effect on the juvenile system—Human Rights Watch learned that prosecutors in some jurisdictions are using the threat of direct file in order to obtain guilty pleas in juvenile court, thereby discouraging defendants from exercising their right to present a defense and avoid incarceration in juvenile facilities.

Once they are charged directly in adult court by Florida’s prosecutors, children are moved to adult jails pending disposition of their cases, and often serve their sentences in adult facilities. While Florida law requires that they be kept separate from adults, the experience of adult jail or prison is still traumatic. Many interviewees reported that violence was prevalent in adult jails and prisons. Furthermore, adult facilities are simply not designed to house children—interviewees suffered from inadequate time outdoors, a lack of appropriate counseling, and were prevented from visiting privately in person with their families (some were instead limited to video phone calls with their loved ones). They also noted that corrections officers lacked the skills or patience required to deal with adolescents. Additionally, the long distances between the prisons that housed them and their hometowns meant that family visits were rare.

The US Supreme Court, in a series of four recent cases, has underscored what every adult knows—that children are different. Their bodies, personalities, and brains are in the process of maturing, which means they are uniquely suited to the rehabilitative programs offered in the juvenile justice system. Although they can be held accountable for crimes, their punishment should take into account their diminished culpability, because they are less able to reason logically, to withstand peer pressure, to predict future outcomes in order to guide their behavior, and to make careful decisions. This extends to 16- and 17-year-olds. One judge who has presided over juvenile court for 14 years told Human Rights Watch, “I’ve been here long enough to understand that when someone is 16 and I ask them why they did it and they say ‘I don’t know,’ I believe them.”

This understanding is also reflected in international law, which has long recognized that children are fundamentally different from adults. International law requires that children receive special protection in all proceedings, including criminal proceedings. To comply with international standards, any criminal process that a child is subjected to must take into account the fact that children are uniquely capable of rehabilitation.

Some children are charged directly in adult court for their first offense. Others are subjected to direct file after a series of offenses adjudicated in juvenile court. In neither case is the unfettered power of prosecutors to charge them as adults warranted. Irrespective of any prior offenses, international human rights law requires that children receive treatment tailored to their development and well-being until they reach the age of 18. Even repeat offenders are entitled to that basic safeguard. There are practical reasons for exempting children from adult procedures and sanctions as well. Research shows that criminal behaviors peak in the teenage years, then decline rapidly and continue to slowly decline in late adulthood.

Florida should stop shunting children off to adult court to face processes they do not understand, to spend time in adult facilities not suited to children, and to serve adult sentences that bring a lifetime of consequences that they cannot fully grasp. Florida should re-examine its decision to give prosecutors sole authority to take children away from the juvenile system, where their parents can continue to play a role in their lives, in favor of placing them in the adult system, where parents have very little power and extremely limited contact with their children. The victims of crimes committed by children deserve justice, but children, including teens, can be held accountable without subjecting them to treatment as harsh as that meted out by the state of Florida.

roughly 98 percent (98.3 percent in 2012-13) of juvenile cases transferred to adult criminal court in Florida in recent years ended up there pursuant to the state’s direct file statute. The statute gives prosecutors unfettered discretion to charge 16- and 17-year-olds accused of any felony in adult court and to charge 14- and 15-year-olds as adults with respect to certain specific felonies.

None of the children prosecuted under Florida’s direct file statute have the benefit of hearings where they can challenge the decision to transfer them to the adult system before an impartial decision-maker. The statute does not give judges any role to play in the decision to pursue direct file; a juvenile court judge cannot stop a prosecutor from charging a child in adult court, and an adult court judge has no power to refuse to hear a case and send it to juvenile court, regardless of how unsuitable the case is for criminal court. Florida fails to provide even the most basic of safeguards—a fair hearing —when determining the fate of its children.

Rather than being prosecuted in the juvenile system, which is intended to be rehabilitative and to balance the needs of society and the best interests of the child, such children are shunted off to the adult criminal justice system, which values punishment over everything else. They are placed in adult jails, deprived of age-appropriate programs, and subjected to harsh sentences and the life-altering consequences of adult felony convictions.

Many teens find out they are going to be tried as adults only when they are taken from juvenile detention to an adult jail, where many become victims of and witnesses to violence. Some go through the entire adult court process—from arrest and bond hearing to guilty plea—without fully understanding what is happening.

The decision to deny a child access to the rehabilitative services offered by the juvenile justice system and subject him or her to the more punitive adult system is, in most cases, made by the prosecutor, who is an adverse party in the proceedings and has no obligation to consider the defendant’s status as a child. While Florida’s still on-the-books but rarely used judicial waiver statute sets out eight factors, including “the likelihood of reasonable rehabilitation of the child,” that a judge is required to consider before ordering transfer to adult court, the direct file statute empowering prosecutors contains no such factors. Prosecutors are not even required to state why they are choosing to charge a child in adult court. Their decision is final and cannot be challenged.

As noted above, new statistics developed by Human Rights Watch for this report show that the overwhelming power Florida has handed to prosecutors is playing out in arbitrary and unjust ways. Florida’s judicial circuits send arrested children to adult courts at vastly different rates. This variation cannot be explained by the seriousness of offenses, the size of circuit youth populations, or other data Human Rights Watch examined. Even more disturbingly, once children are charged in adult court, some Florida circuits impose severe adult penalties at frequencies that are out of proportion to the levels of youth crime in those circuits.




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