crimesider

Is Florida arbitrarily prosecuting children as adults?

Once a felon, always a felon.

That's the fate being "arbitrarily and unfairly" handed down to hundreds of children prosecuted as adults in the state of Florida, according to a new report from Human Rights Watch.

The 110-page report, titled "Branded for Life: Florida's Prosecution of Children as Adults under its 'Direct File' Statute," explores the state's Direct File process -- a statute that allows a prosecutor to decide whether to begin prosecution in juvenile or criminal court.

The report explores the extent of the discretion Florida gives to its prosecutors and how it's being used.

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Human Rights Watch researcher Alba Morales
CBS News
"This is a law that ostensibly was passed to deal with the most heinous crimes. That's just not how it's being used," said Human Rights Watch criminal justice researcher and author of the report Alba Morales. "A lot of the jurisdictions that I visited in Florida, what I saw was prosecutors that were using the threat of Direct File almost as a bargaining chip to try to get pleas in juvenile court."

"[Prosecutors] don't ever have to tell the judge why they're doing it. They don't have to tell the child why they're doing it. Nobody ever reviews it," Morales said.

Of the 1,500 children charged as adults in Florida between 2012 and 2013, more than 98 percent of the cases were brought by prosecutors under Direct File, according to the Human Rights Watch report.

At least one prosecutor took issue with the Human Rights Watch report.

William "Willie" Meggs, Florida state attorney for the 2nd Judicial Circuit, said that whoever claims they prosecute children arbitrarily is "a moron." "That's not what we do, and that's not how we use it," said Meggs.

Meggs said prosecutors use "good criteria" in their choice to use Direct File, and that it is reserved only for "serious cases" in which the perpetrator is approaching the age of 18.

A spokesperson from the State Attorney's Office of the Fourth Judicial Circuit in Florida issued a statement, claiming the report is flawed.

"We are continuing to review the 100-plus page report which appears to contain several significant inaccuracies," the statement said. "Florida State Statute 985.565 allows a Court to impose juvenile sanctions in any case that the State Attorney's Office has direct-filed. Per this law, the Court cannot impose juvenile sanctions when a juvenile has been indicted by the Grand Jury on an offense punishable by death or life in prison."

In response, Morales said that the court can only interfere in the sentencing phase, and, by then, it's already too late. The juvenile has already been in adult jail and processed in the adult system. "There needs to be judicial review at the onset" of direct file, Morales said.

Once children are convicted of a felony, they are forever branded convicted felons. With that mark on their record, they will never be allowed to vote and they are limited in their options for housing and jobs.

Veronica Limia, a 31-year-old lawyer who "grew up in the juvenile court system," was prosecuted in adult court at age 17 and will carry two felonies on her record for the rest of her life.

"They still impact me on an everyday basis," Limia said. "When I go look for a job, I have to go in there prepared to explain to them that when you look me up, there's going to be two felonies on there."

As far as finding housing, Limia said, in many places, "it's an automatic 'No.'"

Children are less mature and have more potential to change than adults. Direct File is undermining that potential, according to Human Rights Watch.

"There's a good reason why we have juvenile courts," Morales said. "Children who are transferred to adult courts miss out on a whole range of opportunities for rehabilitation. They miss out on everything that the juvenile system can offer them."

Fifteen states currently have some form of Direct File statute, however the requirements for implementation vary greatly from state to state. The statute is generally reserved for the most serious crimes. However, in Florida, even some misdemeanors can be prosecuted in criminal court if the accused meets certain requirements. And, 60 percent of all the cases in which a child was tried as an adult in Florida between 2012 and 2013 were for nonviolent crimes, according to data analyzed by Human Rights Watch.

"There needs to be more requirements, there has to be more factors that are looked at," Limia said. "It has lifetime consequences."


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