For the past two years, I’ve represented children who were tried as adults in Palm Beach County’s criminal justice system.
I’ve also followed children through the juvenile justice system. While neither is perfect, the differences are stark. The distinction stems from the goal of each system: rehabilitation in juvenile and punishment in adult.
Unfortunately, too many children in Palm Beach County and across the Sunshine State are being shut out of the system tailored for them and funneled into one meant for grown men and women. Kids, who are the most vulnerable and in need of the most support, are being placed in a system where failure is almost inevitable.
That’s why lawmakers must pass CS/SB 192, which proposes much-needed reform that will keep children where they belong — in juvenile court.
Florida law allows prosecutors to send children charged with certain offenses straight into adult court, a process known as “direct file.” Prosecutors aren’t required to consider external factors affecting the child’s behavior. They don’t have to explain why they decided to prosecute the child as an adult. And there is no judicial oversight at all; the child cannot even ask for a hearing to petition for return to juvenile court. In Palm Beach County, for example, the prosecutor has placed a number of 14- and 15-year-old boys in the ambit of the adult system, where they now sit in an adult jail as their future horizons become bleaker.
When a child arrives in adult court, they’re cloaked in this presumption that they don’t deserve juvenile treatment. Jurors and judges alike assume that these children are properly vetted and deemed the worst of the worst, beyond redemption. Jurors infer that these kids have an atrocious, violent history. Judges assume adult sanctions are necessary. That’s fiction.
I once defended a girl charged with burglary with battery. Her only priors were misdemeanors. Though she had been the victim of sex trafficking, a potential mitigating factor, she was “direct filed” into adult court. And because she was the only girl being held in the Palm Beach County jail, she was held in solitary confinement for almost nine months. She was not the worst of the worst.
Children deserve to be treated as children. The juvenile justice system is designed for them, from intake to release. That’s where they belong.
When children enter that system, they are assessed immediately by an intake juvenile probation officer who learns about obstacles they’re facing in terms of home life, health care and education. These officers address issues like self-harm, drug use and family abuse. They contact school districts to make sure the child is getting to class on time, and if not, work to identify alternative bus routes or different schools that can better accommodate the child’s circumstances.
When children are transferred to the adult system, they’re sent to county jail, where they often remain for months, because most teenagers cannot afford monetary bond. These kids receive little education, though it is required by law. They are frequently given nothing more than worksheets to complete. They have no physical contact with their families.
When children go before a juvenile judge, the judge addresses the child directly and remembers them. Judges ask about football tryouts and school. When a kid earns a diploma or GED, everyone in the juvenile courtroom erupts in applause.
In adult court, a child is nothing more than another defendant who has to be processed. Adult judges don’t remember the kids or ask about their lives. They don’t care if the child graduated from high school or got accepted to college.
If a child calls a juvenile probation officer to say they don’t have transportation to their morning appointment but have a ride at lunch, that officer will be flexible. If the same thing happened on adult probation, an officer would be waiting to arrest them when they arrived a few hours late. If a child has to complete community service, a juvenile probation officer will help the kid identify an option that is in line with their interests or close to home. A kid on adult probation gets a list of places where community service is available without additional guidance.
Those in the juvenile system want children to succeed. There is a culture of building up the child, showing them that their life isn’t over and directing them on a path of potential.
In the adult system, the deck is stacked against children because they’re treated just like adults. Judges believe children are there for a reason and require punishment. They’re suspicious of the narrative that the people before them have capacity for change.
The mother of a child who was leaving prison called me, frustrated by the obstacles facing her son. He’s young. He’s black. That’s two strikes against him already, she told me. Now, he has a felony, and he’ll be branded a criminal for the rest of his life. That’s the third strike.
Her story perfectly sums up the problem of trying children as adults in Florida, especially children who aren’t the worst of the worst, children who have the capacity to learn from their mistakes, to mature and to improve themselves. We must build these children up, not push them down. We must recognize the harm we inflict on children by treating them like adults.We must reform the juvenile justice system.
TALITHA HAZELTON, WEST PALM BEACH
Editor’s note: Talitha Hazelton is a former assistant public defender for Palm Beach County.