Florida’s Direct File Harms Youth

The Human Rights Watch report “Branded for Life: Florida’s Prosecution of Children as Adults” explains that although most US states do not allow direct file (sending juvenile offenders straight to adult court with no intermediary hearing), Florida continues to charge juveniles as adults more than any other state.  Over 60% of those charges are for nonviolent felonies, with fewer than 3% of the charges against juveniles in adult courts being for murder.

Additionally, many of the youth interviewed for the study who were transferred to adult courts did not understand the implications of pleading guilty to felonies.  In fact, many of them did not know the process that led to their being convicted of a crime.

Minority youth are adversely affected by Florida’s direct file statutes at an alarmingly higher rate than white youth.  Black boys make up 27.2% of children arrested for crimes in Florida, while white boys make up 28% of children arrested for crime.  Although those figures are close, the disparity lies in the fact that 51.4% of those same black boys are sent to adult court, whereas only 24.4% of the same white boys are sent to adult court.

The authors of the study explain that there are benefits of youth being tried as juveniles instead of as adults.  Juvenile detention centers are designed to be more rehabilitative.  As such, they identify what is in a child’s best interest more readily than adult detention centers.  Adult detention centers are designed to be more punitive in nature and there are no programs geared toward youth there.  To add, adult criminal sentences are harsher and have longer-lasting implications, particularly related to reentering society when the inmate’s sentence is finished being served.

Following are some suggested solutions found in the study:

  • Florida legislature should eliminate direct file because it is unreasonable
  • Instead of direct file, Florida should allow a hearing to be held before a judge before juveniles can be sent to adult court
  • Juveniles should be given the opportunity to challenge the decision to try them as adults

Alternatively, with no solution, the following circumstances are likely to continue:

  • Youth will have to withstand being tried as adults without understanding why or how the process will affect the rest of their lives
  • Youth will be prevented from rehabilitation appropriate for their age by the decision of adverse prosecuting parties

Patrice Garnette, Joint Center Graduate Scholar, The George Washington University Law School