State Spotlight: Challenging Juvenile Transfer in Florida
2019 is shaping up to be a transformative year for juvenile and criminal justice reform in Florida. Florida legislators are considering 15 bills related to the transfer and treatment of youth prosecuted and incarcerated as adults in the state. S.B. 850 and H.B. 339 eliminate mandatory transfer and prohibit the direct file of 14 and 15-year olds to adult court. S.B. 870 and HB 575 prohibit detaining youth awaiting trial in adult jails except in limited circumstances when a judge determines its in the interest of justice. S.B. 876, H.B. 1293, and HB 575 allow youth transferred to adult court to request a hearing to determine whether they must remain in adult court.
The No Place for a Child Coalition (NPCC), a statewide non-partisan coalition of directly impacted youth, family members, attorneys, advocates, and students, is actively pushing for these reforms at the statehouse this week. In January, the Directly Impacted Families Committee of NPCC reached out to individuals who were transferred or direct filed as youth and are now being held in adult prisons. The committee asked these individuals to share their experience in the adult system and what they want legislators to know and change this legislative session. The committee received a number of responses that highlight why the fight to keep youth out of adult courts, jails and prisons is so critical.
One respondent, J.S. wrote about his inability to understand the gravity of being tried as an adult and therefore being unable to contribute to his defense:
My experience as a youth under 18 in the adult court system can be summed up by the similitude of a fish being out of water. Among other things, what stood out the most was my inability to understand the magnitude of the proceedings. I sat motionless and absent-minded in court as if the judge, prosecutor, and defense attorney were discussing someone other than myself. My mind could not comprehend the magnitude of words like “voir dire,” “adjudication,” “sustained,” “objection,” etc. As a result, I crippled my own defense because I was too mentally and emotionally underdeveloped to assist with my defense.
For youth in the adult system, the nightmare continues when they are detained in adult facilities before and during trial, and after they are convicted. Florida youth incarcerated in the adult system are routinely exposed to violence. C.P. describes his terrifying experiences as a youth incarcerated with an adult population and how they have affected his rehabilitation:
My experience as a juvenile in the adult sentence and system was typical to most I know. Upon entry to the general population, I was repeatedly targeted for assault, battery, robbery, and sexual advances by inmates who believed that they could take advantage of my youth and inexperience and saw both as a potential weakness. I was forced to defend myself regularly. In addition to the abuses or intended abuses of my inmates, I have dealt with corrupt correctional officers on a regular basis. Officers who misuse their authority to their advantage or for their pleasure. My experiences have left me with not a feeling but a sure knowledge that Florida’s Department of Corrections has failed and continues to fail juvenile offenders. Statistics do not lie. Inmates sentenced as juvenile offenders often become more criminal, more violent, and are likelier to reoffend. These are facts. In my recent court hearing, a judge actually observed and stated that my behavior has worsened throughout my incarceration. My question was, “Have you ever been in prison? Have you ever been sentenced to die in prison at the age of 16? Have you lived in this environment?”
For those incarcerated youth who are separated from the adult population without any other peers, life is isolating and lonely. T.L., explains the isolation she felt at an adult women’s facility:
My experience as a minor in both jail and prison was very lonely. I wasn’t allowed around the other juvenile girls because the seriousness of my charges but I wasn’t allowed around the other women because of my age. I was housed around five other girls at one point but even that didn’t last long….Staff members didn’t even know what to do with me so I went unnoticed a lot. There was a time I didn’t see or feel sunlight for weeks. The officers got frustrated with me a lot because I always bothered them about taking me outside, getting me to the canteen, fixing my TV, just what I thought to be simple things. I spent a lot of time crying and wondering what I did to deserve this.
Several young people also shared what they would want legislators to know to improve the justice system for youth and provided the following responses:
If given the opportunity to speak to legislators I would tell them to try juvenile programs, interact more with the family, and really explain to the child what is going on. I went to county jail at 15 years old as a first time offender...I had no idea what to even ask for. Once again I felt completely helpless. - T.L.
A child’s surroundings forever affect who they become so if you want to change your surroundings currently begin with the children because they are going to be the leaders in the future. So I suggest that if you don’t completely stop transferring youth to adult court, at most don’t hold them in adult jail in the meanwhile. - E.G.
If I could tell legislators to improve anything about the the system I would tell them to improve our ability to learn or receive real help to fight our freedom within the laws give us a fair chance to learn our case help us to stay focus[ed] and grounded on self betterment and really get the chance to rehabilitate ourself. - J.H.
During the No Place for a Child Coalition Lobby Day on March 14th, advocates and young people will share these and other recommendations with legislators. Through their letters, young people who have been or are incarcerated will join the chorus of parents, advocates, students and concerned citizens from across Florida asking legislators for a change.
If you are a Florida resident and want to push for reform please take the following action alert, here.
For more information about the No Place for A Child Campaign and the legislation that coalition members are advocating for this session, please visit, here. Follow the coalition on Twitter @NoPlaceFL and on Facebook.