This legislative session, multiple pieces of legislation relating to direct file — prosecuting children as adults — have been introduced. The Florida Policy Institute supports three of these bills, which seek to reform the state’s direct file process in three fundamental ways. They would: modify existing provisions under which mandatory and discretionary direct files are allowed (SB 650); ban juveniles who are awaiting trials from being housed in adult correctional facilities (SB 870); and allow a juvenile’s defense attorney to request a hearing from a judge to determine whether the juvenile should be under the adult court’s jurisdiction (SB 876).
Direct file in Florida is the process through which prosecutors can charge juveniles as adults without any review from a judge. Although there are three ways in which a juvenile can be transferred to adult court, direct file is the most common. In Fiscal Year (FY) 2015-16, 99 percent of transferred children were via direct file, whereas less than 1 percent was through judicial waiver and grand jury indictment, respectively.
Florida’s direct file laws were established in 1978. Florida was among the first states to grant prosecutors the power to decide when to charge a juvenile as an adult, and it has transferred more children to adult court than any other state. From 2003 to 2008, the rate of children who were charged as adults was 164.7 per 100,000 juveniles. Over the years, the laws on direct file have changed. In early 1978, prosecutors could only direct file under limited circumstances. However, with the increase in juvenile crime in the 1990s, Florida widened its scope on direct file by including more offenses and lowering the qualifying age.
In Florida, there are two types of direct file, discretionary and mandatory. As these titles reveal, discretionary direct file happens when the prosecutor makes the judgment call that adult punishment is in the public’s best interest, and the case meets other guidelines set in statute. Mandatory direct file primarily considers age at the time of offense or the type of offense. There are four types of mandatory direct file. One type requires children of any age who cause serious bodily injury or death while possessing a stolen car to be direct filed. Prosecutors tend to consider several factors, such as prior juvenile sanctions and whether the child has had any Department of Juvenile Justice residential placements.
In FY 2015-16, the top three judicial circuits with the most direct files were: The First Judicial Circuit (Escambia, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa, Walton) with 125 children; the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit (Pasco, Pinellas, Hillsborough) with 131 children; and the Eleventh Judicial Circuit (Dade) with 105 children. During that same period African-American children made up roughly 68 percent of those who were direct filed.
There has been a sharp decline in these trends, however. In FY 2017-18, the judicial circuits mentioned above all experienced a decrease in direct files. The First Judicial Circuit had 73 direct files, and there were 70 and 71 direct files for the Eleventh Judicial Circuit and the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit, respectively. Despite the decline in adult transfers, African-American children remain the most impacted group.
Several studies have found that children who are tried as adults are more likely to recidivate compared to those who stay in the juvenile justice system. Research shows that children vary fundamentally from adults. They are still developing physically and cognitively; therefore, they are less culpable and more susceptible to rehabilitation.