Will Florida’s Judges Get More Control over Juvenile Crime?
Florida is only one of three states in the U.S. in which judges have little influence over whether juveniles are sentenced in the adult courts or the juvenile courts. The decision is an important one because the way offenders are treated in an adult court is quite different from the way they are treated in a juvenile court.
In fact, currently Florida sends more of its juveniles to prison than any other state. Many people feel that this is unnecessarily harsh and does not take into consideration the fact that most juveniles are too immature to make rational decisions about what they are doing and should be given a greater chance to reform themselves before being treated as an adult. Others differ and feel certain juvenile offenders should be locked up for good.
A Senate bill may decide this year whether judges get a greater role over whether juveniles stay in the adult court in future. The bill has passed the committee stage and will be debated in the forthcoming legislative period. It was proposed by Miami Republican Senator, Sen. Miguel de Portilla, and will allow any juvenile who has been transferred to an adult court the chance to be reviewed by a judge before going on to trial. The judge would have greater powers to consider all aspects of the case before making a decision about which court the juvenile is tried in.
Of the 1,300 juveniles who were sent to an adult court last year, over a quarter of them were being charged with burglary offenses, 16% with armed robbery, 12% with aggravated assault or battery, 7% with auto theft and gun possession and less than 4% for any other charge including murder or manslaughter. Most of the juveniles were either 16 or 17.
A similar bill was submitted last year, but it failed. Another bill with similar intent has been submitted to the House this year also, but it is more limited in scope.
Sen. Diaz De La Portilla and those in the justice system who support the bill hope that it will lead to fewer juveniles reoffending, as research indicates that they are more likely to reoffend and less likely to be rehabilitated if they are sent to adult jails. The added expense of yet another round of review and court hearings would be more than compensated if there was less crimes overall.
Opposed to the bill and the greater role that judges could have if the bill was passed and became law are prosecutors. They are wary of losing the control they have over more serious offenders and want to make sure that “the punishment fits the crime”. However, supporters of greater judicial review say that the purpose of the change is not to go easy on violent, serious or repeat juvenile offenders, but allow judges to make a decision given all the facts in the case.
They want to remove the less serious juvenile offenders from the environment of an adult trial and prison, in the expectation that this will give them a greater chance to continue their education or be rehabilitated. The only impartial arbiters who would be able to take an unbiased look as to whether it is appropriate to leave a case in juvenile court or send it to adult court would be the circuit court judges.
They could listen to prosecution and defense arguments and balance societies interests versus the interest of the child in an unbiased fashion. This kind of legislation seems to point the State in the right direction when it comes to handling juvenile cases in criminal court.
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