Recently, Crimcourts covered the 9-month-old in Pakistan charged with attempted murder. That got me thinking about the rules in Florida, and how old someone has to be to be tried as an adult, as there have been some high-profile cases of young people being tried as adults. For certain serious offenses, there is no minimum age for children to be tried as adults in Florida. According to a juvenile sentencing report by the University of Texas, there are examples of 11-year-olds being charged as adults, and that theoretically a 7-year-old accused of murder could stand trial as an adult. For less serious offenses, children over age 16 can be charged as adults at the discretion of the prosecutor, even for misdemeanors if they have priors.
Florida was recently in the news for the case of Christian Fernandez, a 12-year-old charged as an adult in Jacksonville, who faced mandatory life in prison without parole if convicted at trial. Ultimately, Fernandez plead to a deal that allowed for him to be sentenced as a juvenile, and he will remain incarcerated until he turns 19. That’s the most recent of a history of aggressive prosecutions of juveniles.
Florida made news several years ago when Lionel Tate, who was also 12 at the time of his offense, lost at trial and was sentenced to life in prison. He was the youngest person in America to have been sentenced to life without parole, until his sentence was overturned on appeal. He then entered a plea deal that spared life in prison, and he ultimately violated his probation by committing a robbery. Tate’s case also garnered attention because he was convicted of felony murder, which means that he did not have to intend the death of the playmate he killed. It was a first degree felony murder because it occurred in the commission of child abuse, despite the fact that Tate was only 12, himself.
There has been a growing effort in Florida to amend the way juveniles are handled in relation to adult court. Currently, Florida prosecutors are given great power in that they have unquestioned discretion to “direct file”, that is to charge a juvenile in adult court. It most instances, the decision cannot be reviewed by a judge, or appealed. The Florida Times-Union did a fascinating examination of how prosecutors gained this power during a reactionary period 20 years ago when there were several high-profile attacks on tourists. This unfettered discretion could lead to abuses if State Attorneys use it unfairly.
The Florida Bar has a committee advocating for the Legal Needs of Children, who are pushing the recommendations from 12 years ago against the direct filing of juveniles. The committee has been advocating changes for years. The committee’s position was recently adopted by the Florida Bar’s Board of Governors as an official legislative position of the Florida Bar. This isn’t a minority advocacy group, or even a Defense oriented group, this is the position of the Florida Bar as a whole.
Rob Mason, an assistant public defender in the 4th circuit, and director of that office’s juvenile division, says that the State does use their power to unfairly coerce pleas from juveniles in his circuit. Angela Corey, who has raised red flags around here before, is the State Attorney there, in the circuit including Jacksonville. Mason’s allegations about her practices seem to be borne out in the record. He says that about 80% of the direct commitments handled by his office are threatened with being charged as adults, which entices a quick plea to avoid potentially longer sentences for those juveniles. Moreover, the Florida Times-Union reports more than 1400 direct commitments over the last four years. In contrast, there were only 34 during the same period Miami’s district, in spite of having about twice as many juveniles as Jacksonville’s. Further, 29 percent of the direct commitments in Jacksonville stem from misdemeanor cases. Those kids are likely receiving harsher sentences as juveniles that comparable adult offenders. It was Angela Corey’s office that filed Christian Ferndandez’s case in adult court, before relenting.
The great power afforded to prosecutors in Florida is unnecessary. It would not be a great burden to use judicial review for the appropriateness of such decisions. The majority of state attorneys probably do not abuse the discretion, but the numbers suggest that even one can negatively affect thousands of children. Judicial review would put a check in the system to ward off abuses, and still allow prosecutors to push for adult prosecution where it was appropriate: not just whenever it is convenient or advantageous to coerce a plea deal. That’s why the Florida’s Bar’s Legislative committee will now advocate for such a change.