Although children’s brains are still developing, and they cannot fully understand the consequences of their actions, our criminal justice system treats some of them like grown adults. They receive adult punishments that will forever diminish their employment, educational and housing opportunities.
Florida tries more children as adults than any other state; almost all are transferred to the adult criminal justice system at the sole discretion of prosecutors, without the opportunity to even ask a judge to review the decision. Though any child, regardless of age, can be prosecuted as an adult in Florida, most cases involve children who are 14 to 17 years old — mainly high schoolers.
These children should be learning how to drive, applying to colleges, or worrying about who they’ll take to prom. They should not be in the adult criminal justice system, where the primary goal is punishment — not rehabilitation.
Children should be kept in the juvenile justice system — where they belong — so they can benefit from education, counseling and other programs that will make them more likely to succeed.
Jails aren’t equipped to provide these programs, and they particularly don’t offer adequate education. The Southern Poverty Law Center released a report this week titled “Destined to Fail: How Florida Jails Deprive Children of Schooling.” The devastating findings show how children have limited or no access to their legal right of schooling when they are housed in adult jails.
In adult jails, children are sometimes held in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day and are denied access to education. Some children receive nothing more than worksheets — sometimes without a pen or pencil to complete them.
Children who go to adult jails are less likely to receive a high school diploma — further limiting their job opportunities and chances for financial stability. Children tried as adults are also more likely to reoffend than their peers in the juvenile system. This threatens public safety and increases incarceration costs for taxpayers.
Especially troubling is the disparity in the rate of adult prosecutions for black and white children across Florida. While black children make up only 22 percent of the state’s high school student population, they accounted for 64 percent of children sent to the adult criminal justice system last year.
It is time for our lawmakers to intervene. The Legislature is considering bills that would begin to at least limit the number of children who are prosecuted as adults.
SB 936 and HB 509 would set age parameters and reduce the offenses eligible for adult transfer. The proposed legislation would also implement judicial oversight and provide children a way to return to juvenile court.
We cannot throw away the futures of our children and our communities. The adult criminal justice system is no place for a child.
Scott McCoy is the senior policy counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center and is based in Tallahassee.