Last month, Sonny Rugani hanged himself in his cell at the Broward County jail. He died at the hospital five days later.
Sonny was just 17 years old. Despite his age, prosecutors had funneled Sonny into the adult justice system — a system ill equipped to handle the needs of young people. Florida’s direct-file law grants prosecutors the power to decide unilaterally whether to file a child’s case in the adult system. As a result, Florida sends more children into the adult system than any other state in the country. Cases like Sonny’s make clear why we need to eliminate or, at the very least, severely limit the use of direct file.
Prosecutors charged Sonny with two felonies arising from allegations that he stole a backpack containing a firearm. The fact that the gun was in the backpack (though not used in the alleged crime) allowed prosecutors to charge him with armed burglary. According to the public defender’s office, prosecutors could have charged Sonny with a lesser offense and filed his case in the juvenile system. Yet even though he was a teenager with known mental health issues, prosecutors decided to charge him in a system designed for adults. And he paid a steep price: his own life.
Placing children in the adult system is extraordinarily harmful. Children incarcerated in adult prisons are at greater risk for both physical and sexual abuse than their peers in juvenile facilities. As the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission has made clear, “More than any other group of incarcerated persons, youth incarcerated with adults are probably at the highest risk of sexual abuse.”
Sadly, Sonny’s suicide is not an aberration, either. While the suicide rate for youth in the general population is around 5 per 100,000 — a number that generally remains level in juvenile facilities — the suicide rate for youth under 18 who are housed in adult jails is 36 per 100,000 — a rate more than seven times higher than that of other young people.
We have a separate system for children because children are not adults. As any parent of a 17-year-old can tell you, their child is not yet fully mature. And neuroscience confirms their intuition: At age 17, the brain — particularly the part responsible for reasoning and decision-making — is still forming.
While this finding means that young people are apt to make more mistakes than adults, it also means that they are more capable of rehabilitation — if held in facilities with programming that is appropriate for them.
Several pieces of legislation could help young people like Sonny who are direct filed into Florida’s adult system. One bill that legislators will likely introduce this session would limit direct file (a similar bill has been introduced in past sessions). A second bill, which was introduced last session and will likely be reintroduced, would require children that have been direct filed into the adult system to be housed in juvenile facilities pending their trials as adults. This bill is significant because it will help to bring Florida in line with the new requirements of the recently reauthorized federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which sets national standards for juvenile justice systems.
With next year comes a major election in Florida. Nineteen out of 20 state attorneys are up for election. Orange-Osceola’s state’s attorney position is one of these open seats, and Aramis Ayala, the would-be incumbent, has announced she does not plan to run for reelection . In choosing a replacement, voters will have the opportunity to make clear that they support a state attorney who will end or, at the very least, limit direct file in their judicial circuit.
Sonny’s sister remembers him as a Nutella- and Xbox-loving boy who comforted her when they were in foster care. She told reporters he was just trying to learn from his mistakes. Sadly, the adult system is no place for a child to learn and grow.
Image credit: Sebra 
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