Across the U.S., lawmakers, juvenile justice advocates and community groups are shifting away from allowing prosecutors to “direct file” juvenile cases in adult courts, reports NPR. Florida, more than other states, has traditionally embraced an aggressive direct file system run by state attorneys who opt to transfer kids out of the juvenile court system and into the adult criminal system. The repercussions are great and the options for navigating the complex system are limited. From 2006 to 2011, more than 15,600 youths passed through Florida’s adult criminal court system for violent and nonviolent offenses.
Florida’s direct file statute grants prosecutors unfettered discretion to move any juvenile case to adult court without a judge’s permission. The statute dates back to juvenile justice reform from the 1950s, when lawmakers were seeking to balance rehabilitation and punishment of youths who had committed heinous crimes. “A lot of these juveniles that have been through the system a lot, when they get arrested, their attitude is ‘Nothing’s going to happen to me. I’m a juvenile,’ ” says former prosecutor Jeff Ashton. In a 2011 report, the U.S. Department of Justice identified Florida’s direct file rate as disproportionately high compared to other states. Human Rights Watch criticized Florida’s direct file statute as an example of disparate treatment of people of color. Its report found that from 2008 to 2013, black boys in Florida were disproportionately sent to prison, whether for first- or second-time offenses. That trend continues with data from the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice showing that 64 percent of kids sent to adult court in 2016 were black. Twelve states and the District of Columbia allow prosecutors to make decisions on where kids end up based on a direct file statute.