Home News Center Florida Member Pushes Legislation to Reform State's Direct File Procedures

Florida Member Pushes Legislation to Reform State's Direct File Procedures

January 14, 2016
Zoe Schein

The Southern Poverty Law Center of Florida (SPLC-FL), an NJJN member, has worked with a strong coalition of organizations— including the Children’s Campaign – also an NJJN member—to introduce legislation that, if passed, will significantly reform the state’s direct file procedures. While current law does allow judges to decide whether a case involving a youth should be processed in adult court, prosecutors are far more likely to send  youth to adult court using “direct file,” a process that gives prosecutors unilateral discretion to do so. In fact, said Tania Galloni, managing attorney at SPLC-FL, a full 98 percent of cases involving youth who are transferred to the adult court system are done so by direct file.

While the new legislation, S.B. 314, would not eliminate direct file entirely, it would set limits on its use; the bill creates a complete list of offenses eligible for direct file, tiered by age range. All other transfers to adult court would be subject to hearing before a judge.  Youth who are transferred to adult court via direct file would be entitled to a suitability hearing before a judge, who could send the case back to juvenile court.  The companion bill, H.B. 129, was amended at its first committee stop to take judges out of the equation, and would not in its current form constitute meaningful reform.

 “Transferring youth to the adult system deprives children of the critical rehabilitative services they would have otherwise have had the opportunity to receive in the juvenile system.” said Usha Maharajh, assistant public defender in the Juvenile Division of Martin County, Florida’s courts, and an NJJN Youth Justice Leadership Institute alum. Further, studies have shown that youth processed in adult courts and held in adult facilities are placed at an increased risk of abuse and mental health problems (including risk of suicide), and have restricted access to educational opportunities and other services crucial to their development and rehabilitation. Some studies have even shown such punitive measures to increase rates of recidivism.

In addition to restricting pathways that funnel youth into the adult system, said Galloni, the new legislation would “bring much-needed transparency to the process, and take away prosecutors’ undue leverage when negotiating the resolution of cases. The threat of adult court could no longer be used to pressure young people into plea deals, and it would allow youth and their families to be heard on the issue of transfer.”

Photo: Flickr member Mark Strozier.

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