Legislature has more to do to protect children
Discussion of how best to protect Florida’s children from violence in schools has been a necessary step in response to the horrific events in Parkland. Thanks to students’ calls for change, the state recently instituted meaningful reforms to Florida’s firearms laws.
These efforts, though laudable, are not the only way the Florida Legislature could have protected children this session.
Currently, Florida allows prosecutors considerable discretion when deciding how and where to prosecute children. This system, known as “direct file,” means that prosecutors decide which children can reap the rehabilitative benefits of the juvenile justice system and which will suffer the harsh consequences the adult system.
Florida’s lawmakers were making significant headway in reforming direct file last month when considering two bills – Senate Bill 936 and House Bill 509 – which would have limited adult prosecution of children. However, on March 10, both bills were “withdrawn from consideration.”
At least until the Legislature reconvenes, children charged with crimes in Florida will continue to be subject to unfettered prosecutorial discretion. Clearly, children who commit crimes should be held accountable. But instead of focusing on increased punishment – after all, most children that are tried in adult court are there for nonviolent offenses – lawmakers should advance a “smart on crime” approach by assigning children to the most appropriate place for addressing problematic behaviors, the juvenile justice system.
The adult system is intended to deter and punish. The U.S. Justice Department indicates that nearly 40 percent of adult jails provide no educational services, and only 7 percent provide job training. Children tried and sentenced as adults face harsh circumstances while imprisoned and lifelong barriers once they are released, making steady employment and safe housing nearly impossible to secure later in life.
The juvenile justice system, in contrast, is designed to educate and rehabilitate. Depending on the needs of the child, a juvenile court can help modify behavior by building self-esteem, requiring school attendance, or addressing risk behaviors through counseling. Ultimately, there are more options to promote recovery and rehabilitation in the juvenile system than the adult system by an astonishing margin.
Engaging with youths through the juvenile system also decreases recidivism among juvenile offenders. Studies demonstrate that children in the adult system re-offend more quickly and more often, and go on to commit more serious crimes, than their counterparts in juvenile systems. In contrast, most youth in the juvenile system will never offend again.
Ideally, lawmakers will reintroduce bills addressing Florida’s direct file system in 2019 and will include the same ideas outlined this session.
Protecting Florida’s children is paramount, but effective change can take varying paths.
Rather than focusing on one positive change, the Florida Legislature should multitask. If lawmakers had passed firearms regulations and direct-file legislation this session, they could have helped promote children’s safety in schools and rehabilitate those children who may pose a threat to their peers. Hopefully this next session, lawmakers will focus on both.
Image credit: Rena Schild