Florida Policies Needlessly Derail Young Lives, Fill Prison Cells

Susana Marino knew she couldn’t let her facial expression change.

She was listening to her 16-year-old son recount his experience in Florida’s Pasco County Jail. Showing shock or horror might cause him to shut down – and she needed to know what happened if she hoped to help him. So, she kept her emotions in check as her son, a teenager who had never been in trouble with the law, described the four days he spent in jail after being arrested on charges stemming from a vandalism case.

What Miguel endured in 2009 as his mother attempted to secure a $30,000 bond for his release left her in shock. Only two hours after his arrest, other inmates threatened to beat him and sexually assault him unless he fought – something he refused to do. He was also forced to lick a toilet seat, and even drink water from it. The inmates created a list of humiliating chores for him to complete, such as rubbing lotion on the backs of other prisoners. He was slapped, beaten and threatened as he completed these tasks.

He endured the abuse for three days before a guard put him in protective custody. The officer discovered the youth crying in his cell after being hit in the face by one of the prisoners. He was emotionally breaking down.

“Miguel was never the same again,” Susana said, holding back tears. “He tried to get back into school, but he couldn’t concentrate anymore. He was angry. He couldn’t sleep well at night. He really was trying to focus on his school. He said he couldn’t cope. It’s really bad because Miguel had tremendous potential.”

Miguel’s story is just one example of what can happen to a child in an adult jail or prison. As managing attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Florida office, I see far too many of these stories in Florida, a state that sends more children into adult court than any other – 10,000 kids over a five-year period. A stunning 98 percent of these kids were transferred to adult court without a hearing before a judge. That’s because Florida largely puts the decision of prosecuting a child as an adult in the hands of the prosecutor – not a judge – through a statutory power known as “direct file.”

This unchecked prosecutorial discretion creates wide disparities based on jurisdiction. Compared to Miami-Dade County, for example, children charged with felonies are almost twice as likely to be prosecuted as adults in Hillsborough and Duval counties, three times as likely in Palm Beach County and six times as likely in Escambia County. It’s justice by geography.

What is happening here is more than the story of one state’s flawed policies derailing young lives. It’s more than the story of how one in six disenfranchised felons live in Florida – roughly one-quarter of all such persons in the country. This is the story of how Florida helps the United States to imprison more of its citizens than any other country – about 2.2 million people. That’s one-quarter of the world’s prisoners, an astounding feat for a country that represents only 5 percent of the world’s total population.

Parents such as Michelle Stephens believe Florida’s incarceration problem comes down to policy driven by fear rather than fact.

The fear of kids becoming juvenile “superpredators” – a fear laden with racial overtones – is at the heart of draconian policies that treat children as criminals and push them into the adult criminal justice system.

“Everybody just got scared of kids,” Stephens said.

Her son is one of those kids. Kenny Ray, who was 16 at the time, was prosecuted as an adult for an accidental shooting that nearly killed his friend. Her son accepted a plea deal over the shooting incident – a gun discharging among boys fascinated by the weapon. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Under sentencing guidelines, he must serve at least 10.

“I never thought I’d be saying my son only got 15 years,” his mother said.

Florida’s “direct file” statute has handed prosecutors more than the power to try a child in an adult court. The mere threat gives a prosecutor a powerful tool to push a teen into agreeing to an unnecessarily harsh plea deal. Efforts are under way in the Florida Legislature to reform this statute – a good first step toward ending a system that needlessly derails the lives of children.

But it is only a first step.

Shortsighted “tough-on-crime” policies are taking a heavy toll on the children of our state. Like many states, Florida got caught up in the hysteria of media reports about juvenile crime in the late 1980s and into the 1990s. In 1993, accounts of a bungled robbery by four teenagers that ended with the death of a British tourist and the wounding of another greatly contributed to this fear. The incident made international headlines and was seen as a threat to the state’s tourism industry.

The 1996 book Body Count also helped sound what turned out to be a false alarm. It described “radically impulsive, brutally remorseless youngsters, including ever more preteenage boys, who murder, assault, rape, rob, burglarize, deal deadly drugs, join gun-toting gangs and create serious communal disorders.”

There was one problem: The generation of superpredators never arrived to carry out their reign of terror. By 2001, the man who coined the term, former Princeton professor and Body Count co-author John Dilulio, acknowledged to The New York Times that his prediction had been wrong.

It was already too late.

Across the country, states had enacted harsh laws to punish juvenile offenders – often for minor offenses for which incarceration was excessive.

After four harrowing days in jail, Miguel attempted to get his life back on track while a lengthy court process marched on. Ultimately, he was sentenced to six months house arrest, 48 months of adult probation and restitution. He worked at a restaurant as he served his sentence with the hope of moving on from his brush with the law.

It wouldn’t happen.

Shortly before Miguel’s house arrest was set to end, he stayed at work late and stopped at a CVS Pharmacy for a gallon of milk, his mother said. He was due home at 5 p.m. Thirty minutes later, Miguel’s probation officer was knocking on the door of his home.

The incident ended with a four-year prison sentence. Miguel began serving it last year at the age of 20, still suffering the consequences of a youthful mistake.

“The families of incarcerated [family] members – we are the silent victims of this process,” his mother said. “We are cast out. The judicial process does not involve us, the parents who are the most important piece of this process when our kids are locked up.”

Since her son has been locked up, Susana has worked diligently on the outside to protect his rights. When he was placed in a prison for violent offenders, Susana’s phone calls and emails ultimately got her son moved out of that facility after a year. “I feel very sorry for kids like Miguel where the parents quit,” she said. “The only thing they have are mothers like me making noise for justice. If we stay quiet, that’s it. The system will swallow kids like Miguel.”

Even parents of children charged as juveniles can find their children incarcerated in adult jails – a practice that is allowed under Florida law. It can be seen in the Polk County jail, which has dorms for children. Most of these children are simply awaiting court dates for nonviolent offenses. They aren’t eligible for bail because they have been charged in the juvenile system.

Yet they are treated like throwaways beyond redemption.

“These are children who’ve made mistakes, but we shouldn’t give up on them,” said Lisa Jobe, whose teenage son K.J. was held at the jail. “And, that’s what it seems like has happened at the Polk County Jail. They’ve given up on the children and they’re just locking them up.”

In Polk County, children have been relegated to a jail staffed by guards lacking the necessary training to oversee children. These children have been pepper-sprayed, left in isolation for prolonged periods of time and even placed in kennel-like cages. The Southern Poverty Law Center filed suit over these conditions in 2012, leading to a federal trial a year later. A judge’s decision is pending.

Jobe watched the jail transform her 15-year-old son.

“He was always looking over his shoulder,” she said. “You never know when you’re going to be the person that’s going to be jumped next.”

After her son was assaulted, K.J.’s parents were not contacted. His mother didn’t know until she saw his black eye during a visit. “It broke his spirit,” she said. “He was just a different child. He felt there was no hope.”

The Polk County sheriff began housing children at the county jail in October 2011, shortly after Florida passed legislation allowing county commissions to place children charged as juveniles in adult jails without following Department of Juvenile Justice standards – reversing more than 40 years of efforts to create safeguards and meaningful rehabilitative programs for vulnerable children.

Needlessly criminalizing young people through Florida’s direct file statute and other policies comes at a high price. A report by the Justice Policy Institute found that it costs as much as $55,407 a year to lock up a young person in Florida, although the Department of Juvenile Justice’s budget suggests the cost could be twice that amount. These policies also fail to make us safer. An adult court conviction diminishes opportunities for education and future employment. And children become more likely to re-offend, not less.

Susana’s son, a young man with ambitions of becoming a journalist or screenwriter, can clearly see how these policies shortchange a young person’s future. In an email to his mother with the subject line “University of Hardknocks,” he describes prison as a school that carries its own powerful reputation, one that follows everyone who has “graduated.” He imagines how it would be advertised.

“[Y]ou aren’t mailed a diploma and there is no graduation ceremony: Every corporation, law enforcement agency, and military office will know you have graduated with us, and thank[s] to our mainstream media representatives and advertising agencies, will be proud to deny you of all career options, unprejudiced judgment, and even civil rights,” he wrote. “The future looks green and our paychecks are contingent upon how many students we teach, so please enroll in State Prison today!”

Stefan Campagna also understands the importance of recognizing that juveniles are fundamentally different from adults – even when they run afoul of the law. He should know. The 28-year-old Sarasota native, who is now program administrator for the coordinator of the National Association of Youth Courts, found himself facing a Florida youth court when he was 16. He had been arrested for a string of car break-ins, racking up 27 felony charges.

But at the sole discretion of that circuit’s prosecutor, Campagna was not “direct filed” into the adult courts. Instead, he was referred to youth court for resolution. These courts, composed of other teens, allow young people who accept responsibility for their actions to have their charges dismissed after fulfilling the punishment meted out by the youth court. Campagna was one of the most serious cases to appear before the court when he was a teen. He was sentenced to 150 hours of community service and 18 rounds of youth court jury duty.

At first, he wasn’t receptive to the program, now in 55 of Florida’s 67 counties, but he noticed something unique about youth court.

“I wasn’t being judged so much as I was being guided,” he said.

Campagna completed his sentence. Then he took advantage of his second chance: He went on to graduate from Hofstra University College of Law in New York.

He believes it’s important that adults remember what it was like to be a teenager. He points to the body of research showing that the portion of the brain responsible for making rational decisions isn’t fully developed until a person is in his or her mid-20s. This means a child may engage in behavior without fully realizing the risks and consequences for themselves and others.

“Basically, kids are making decisions as intoxicated adults would,” he said. “It’s all impulse and hormones.”

It’s also why young people can’t really explain why they engaged in bad behavior. Sixteen-year-old Campagna couldn’t do it when he was facing the youth court.

“The answer that 99 percent of kids in court give is, ‘I don’t know,'” he said. “It’s probably the most honest answer that they can give because in that moment thinking back on why they did it, they can’t remember what the reason was because they probably didn’t have a clearly articulated reason. It was probably a ‘Well, why not?’ kind of deal.”

But this immaturity means a teenager is still growing and developing as a person. It means the youth will change. This fundamental difference between youths and adults – the possibility of real and dramatic behavioral change for the better – is why the juvenile justice system was created. It also is leading a growing chorus of experts to conclude that incarceration for children should be a last resort, not a first response.

“I would like people to remember that it’s juvenile justice policy,” Campagna said.

There have been some encouraging signs, most notably the United States Supreme Court decision that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted as adults are unconstitutional. Recently, the Florida Supreme Court recognized that this principle must also be applied retroactively, to children already sentenced.

But reform is coming too slowly. Fear and tough-on-crime rhetoric still too often drown out the facts.

We still have a system that gives prosecutors the unchecked authority to push children into the adult system. We’re still putting vulnerable children in jails intended for adults as they await court dates. We’re still not providing the support that will help children become good citizens rather than exposing them to brutality, abuse and neglect.

As for Miguel, his mother hopes he can move on with his life after he serves his sentence. She currently lives in Maryland with his stepfather and younger brother – a move that was originally intended to provide her son with a fresh start after he completed his house arrest. Of course, now that fresh start must wait at least until he has served a four-year prison sentence. And it won’t erase the felony record that will likely limit job opportunities and frustrate a young man striving to get his life back on track.

And it all stems from an incident that occurred when he was 16.

It’s time for Florida to change the policies that needlessly criminalize young people. We must recognize that young people, even those who commit serious crimes, can be rehabilitated. We must recognize that although they must be held accountable, the punishment should not derail a young life forever.

Children should be held accountable in the juvenile justice system – a system designed to meet their unique needs and potential – instead of being subjected to harsh policies rooted in fear and myths.

As Susana can attest, it makes no sense to lock up a child and throw away his future over one thoughtless mistake.

“The collateral damage of this experience – it will last a lifetime,” she said.