Children Deserve Better from Florida's Justice System

I remember being eight years old and looking at my (not-so-nice but very "grown-up") babysitter, who was 12 years old, thinking, "When I am 12, I will be like an adult!" But as adults we all know that 12 year olds are not like adults.

As the United States Supreme Court has recognized in Miller v. Alabama and Graham v. Florida, and everyone who has experience with them knows, children do not have the appreciation of risk, the self-control, the judgment or the overall maturity of adults. The courts also recognize that children have "a greater capacity for change." The conclusion that children have this increased capacity for growth and reform goes beyond experience and common sense; extensive scientific study has established that, as the Supreme Court stated in Miller, "children are different" because their brains are developing. This is why juvenile court systems were created.

Despite the establishment of this understanding in law, science, and common experience, Florida's system of "direct file" allows children of any age - even those younger than 12 - to be charged and treated as adults from the moment they are first arrested until they reenter their communities. For children charged with a felony, Florida places barriers to positive change, reform, and reentry at every step in the path.

Once a child is charged as an adult, s/he is held in adult jail (often in isolation) and, if convicted, sentenced to adult prison. Children in the state prison system are denied access to education and mental health services, and are vulnerable to extreme violence, including rape and murder.

One example is R.W., a 16-year-old boy who was sentenced to an adult prison where he was raped and beaten as part of an institutionally accepted initiation ritual, or "test of heart." Then, he was housed in isolation after he reported it. Now one year from release, he has received no education, training, or other services to help prepare him for reentry. Most likely, he will receive only a one-way bus ticket to his county of residence and $100 "gate money."

The injustice of these conditions aside, a successful return to the community after such experiences is extremely difficult. The Florida Institutional Legal Services Project (FILS), a civil legal aid provider advocating for people in state custody, is litigating R.W.'s case, and several others, to improve the conditions for children in Florida's prisons, but litigation is a long and uphill battle, throughout which inmates continue to bear the brunt of the system's cruelty.

How can we honestly expect R.W., and the hundreds of other young people released from Florida's prisons each year to succeed? Florida incarcerates more children in adult jails than any other state in the nation, but provides virtually no reentry services to them when they are coming back to our communities hoping to rebuild their lives. (According to Human Rights Watch, more than 12,000 juvenile crime suspects in Florida were transferred to the adult court system between 2009 - 2014.) Just like adults with felonies in Florida, children with felony convictions struggle to obtain identification, employment, and housing. They are forever prohibited from obtaining government student loan assistance, which effectively bars many from pursuing a college degree. School districts are allowed to suspend children who are charged with an adult felony, and to expel children who are convicted of one, making even a high school diploma difficult for many to achieve.

As the director of FILS, I see the harm these policies cause each year to hundreds of children, their families, and their communities. The damage can seem insurmountable, but I stubbornly believe positive change is possible. So do U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and her colleagues at the Department of Justice, whose inaugural National Reentry Week is shining a light on the problem nationally, and on solutions like civil legal aid, providing a beam of hope that we can improve criminal laws and reentry policies for Florida's children.

In Florida, FILS and other civil legal aid organizations are on the front lines of pushing against obstacles to reentry. FILS advocates for our young clients to get fair and humane treatment while incarcerated. And once they have served their time, we and other legal aid providers work to give a "leg up," helping them overcome barriers to housing, employment, and education.

But the children in Florida's criminal justice system need and deserve more. It is time to remove the barriers to reentry that render success after incarceration virtually insurmountable. Legislators, government officials, including prosecutors and leaders of prisons and jails, and allies across disciplines must act to do the right thing. While FILS and other civil legal aid providers are working hard to improve the system for children at multiple points, improving reentry services for children would be a good and necessary starting place for officials of good conscience to intervene.