This Wednesday, following up on a heated debate in late June, leading Republican gubernatorial candidates U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis and Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam will square off again in a debate hosted by Jacksonville University Public Policy Institute and WJXT Channel 4. As a perennial swing state, all eyes are on Florida to see which candidate is declared the Republican nominee on Aug. 28.
So far this spotlight has been used predominantly to reiterate the same debate Republicans and Democrats have been having on the national level. However, if either of these candidates is interested in building a durable Republican legacy, he should be paying heed to another issue that is in desperate need of leadership: Florida’s treatment of justice-involved youth.
According to data from the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, 1,436 Floridian children saw their cases transferred to the adult criminal-justice system in fiscal 2016-2017. Yet when youth cases are needlessly transferred, youth, public safety and the Florida economy suffer.
Florida-specific research suggests that youth transferred to the adult system are approximately 34 percent more likely to be arrested or committed for new felonies as adults (compared to similar youth retained under the jurisdiction of the youth justice system). Youth in the adult justice system are also at increased risk of experiencing sexual abuse or committing suicide. In addition, a transfer to adult court means the proliferation of adult criminal records, which further restricts employment opportunities, and thus, contributions to the Florida economy.
Prosecutors’ broad discretionary powers granted under Florida’s “direct-file” statute are behind the majority of these transfers. Direct file allows prosecutors to choose whether to pursue a youth’s case in the youth or adult justice system with no input from a judge. Estimates based on data from the Florida Office of the State Court Administrator suggest that this practice was behind roughly 1,600 youth transfers to the adult system in 2016.
While Florida is not unique in its use of direct file, it is unique in the large number of times prosecutors choose to use this power to move youth into the adult system. A 2011 report by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention recognized Florida as having the highest reported average annual transfer rate in the nation. According to the authors, “aggressive use of prosecutorial discretion” is a possible cause of this ranking.
Moreover, in the Florida justice system, defendants have no opportunity to push back on this decision, and judges are unable to review whether or not the adult justice system is truly appropriate for a particular youth. And once a youth is prosecuted as an adult, all future charges are also prosecuted in the Florida adult criminal-justice system regardless of the severity of the offense. This means that one prosecutor’s decision can permanently remove youth from the better-suited rehabilitative focus in the juvenile-justice system.
While both Republican gubernatorial candidates previously lauded the importance of judges “who are going to apply the law faithfully,” current direct-file laws prohibit judicial discretion and keep juvenile court judges from using their expertise to assess what is the best way to keep children accountable. It’s important to remember that with direct file, the prosecutor has the power to surpass the youth system and have the case heard in an adult court instead -– the juvenile court judge does not have the opportunity to apply the law faithfully to the youth’s individual case.
Candidate Putnam acknowledged the high cost of incarceration during the June debate. But if cutting costs is a concern, then he should be equally as worried that the Florida Department of Corrections is projected to spend over $175 million from 2016 to 2026 if no changes are made to the current use of direct file. However, if direct file is amended and more children are kept in the youth system, Florida taxpayers could save over $12 million thanks to the juvenile-justice system’s more appropriate sentences and effective rehabilitation techniques.
DeSantis imbued the public during the previous debate with his charge that “sometimes duty calls and you have to step up and do what’s right.” In this case, Republican gubernatorial candidates should remember the greater than 1,400 children facing prosecution in the adult criminal-justice system every year. Amending Florida’s direct-file statutes should not be a contentious left-or-right issue, but simply a matter of what is right.