Last year, Sonny Rugani—a child—hanged himself in the Broward County Jail, an adult facility. Unfortunately, his case is not an aberration for children transferred to the adult criminal justice system in the United States. While the suicide rate for youth in the public mirrors the rate in juvenile facilities, the suicide rate for youth under 18 who are housed in adult jails is 36 per 100,000—more than seven times that of other young people.
As the legislative session comes to a close, Florida shouldn’t neglect the opportunity to pass legislation that could help prevent such tragedies and truly improve kids’ lives across the state. Currently, children whose cases have been filed in the adult system are locked up with adults—a situation that is incredibly detrimental to the health and well-being of children, and is unnecessary for public safety. HB 421 would allow judges to house young people in the juvenile system while they await trial. With this change, judges could still decide in exceptional cases to send a child to adult jail, but that would be the exception instead of the rule.
Florida prosecutes more children as adults for felonies than any other state because of its direct-file statute. Direct file allows prosecutors to make the unilateral decision to send a child’s case to the adult system. Under current law, children who are directly filed into the adult system must be incarcerated in adult jails, which are ill-equipped to respond to the unique needs of young people, including the provision of education and counseling.
Additionally, being jailed with adults puts children at risk of physical and sexual abuse. The National Prison Rape Elimination Commission has found that more than any other group of incarcerated people, young people in adult facilities are at the highest risk of sexual abuse. And this is based on what are likely underreported numbers; children are reluctant to report abuse due to the power imbalance between them and staff.
Federal law requires that youth transferred to the adult system be separated by sight and sound from adult inmates. But this separation results in isolation and solitary confinement for many children, which is exceedingly dangerous. Young people who are separated from adults can be locked down for 23 hours a day in their cells, deprived of natural light and contact with others. Such isolation raises severe mental health concerns and can cause suicidal ideation in children.
A lawsuit filed in 2018 charging the Palm Beach County jail with extensive use of solitary confinement on children revealed that children could be isolated for months without social interaction, and that one child cut himself just so he could escape solitary and go to the medical unit. This lawsuit was settled so that children in the Palm Beach County jail are no longer subject to solitary confinement, but a better, statewide solution to this problem would be to keep children out of adult jails entirely.
The bill under consideration in Florida this session wouldn’t change direct file laws, but would change the current law that requires children who have been direct filed to be locked up pre-trial in adult jails. With this change, Florida would be in compliance with the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), which was reauthorized by Congress and signed by President Trump at the end of 2018. Once in compliance, Florida will be able to access federal funding to support the juvenile justice services it currently provides.
As a result of the JJDPA reauthorization, several other states are now considering legislation similar to Florida’s, including Indiana, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah and Washington. North Carolina passed a similar law last year.
These states certainly have one eye on potential federal funds, but the proposals reflect a bipartisan consensus that it makes no sense to jail children in facilities filled with and designed for adults—particularly before their trials, while those children are presumed innocent.
We believe this same consensus exists in Florida. The legislature should pass HB 421, comply with federal law and protect Florida’s children.
Image credit: sakhorn 
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