Florida sends too many juveniles to adult prisons. It’s no place for a child, advocates say

Kim Lawrance, with a picture of her jailed daughter Taylor. Lloyd Dunkleberger photo.

Taylor Lawrance will celebrate her 19th birthday Saturday at the Florida Women’s Reception Center in Marion County.

As inmate H48955, she will mark her next five birthdays in a women’s prison, where she has been serving a 10-year sentence since she was convicted as a 15-year-old of participating in a home robbery in Polk County with four other teenagers. One of the teens held a shotgun as the youths took electronics and clothes.

Despite her youth, under Florida’s “direct file” law, prosecutors charged Lawrance as an adult and she was convicted as an adult for her role in the robbery. And she must serve her sentence in an adult prison, rather than serving in a juvenile facility, as would happen in many other states – and even other jurisdictions in Florida.

“Taylor was once a straight-A student and a competitive cheerleader. Now she is a statistic serving time in an adult prison,” said her mother, Kim Lawrance of Winter Haven.

Florida leads the nation in prosecuting children as adult criminals.

In 2017-18, 904 children were sent to the adult criminal justice system, although it was a decrease from 1,128 children in the prior year, according to the state Department of Juvenile Justice. More than three out of every four children transferred to the adult system were either African-American or Hispanic, the data shows.

Kim Lawrance was with the “No Place for a Child” coalition that came to Tallahassee on Thursday to urge lawmakers to reform the system that allows prosecutors to charge juveniles as adult criminals.

The advocates are supporting legislation that would make it harder for that to happen. One measure would have  judges review a juvenile’s request to be returned to juvenile court if charged as an adult.

Other measures would increase the age for children who could be transferred to the adult system and would eliminate mandatory transfers, which occur with more serious crimes like murder.

In her daughter’s case, Lawrence said Taylor had never been arrested before the incident but “made the mistake of a lifetime” by participating in the robbery.

“She should be held accountable for her actions,” her mother said. But she said her daughter “doesn’t deserve a ruined future,” while being “branded a felon for life.”

“Now she is being raised in the system. And it is bound to cause PTSD,” Lawrance said. “One day she said to me: ‘Mom, do you know what it feels like to hardly remember your home life? I can hardly remember it. I’m losing myself and I have been for a while.’”

Lawrance said children like her daughter are sent into the adult criminal justice system without an evaluation or review.

“Teens will age out of crime. Let’s offer them help through services and not ruin their future,” she said.

Lawrance said many teens can be rehabilitated, while noting a teenager’s brain is not fully developed and that children sometimes do “stupid things.”

“That’s why we don’t allow children to vote. We don’t allow them to serve on juries. We don’t allow them to join the military. And we don’t allow them to enter a legal contract. So why do we pull the adult card out when it comes to crimes?” Lawrance said.

State Sen. Bobby Powell, a Palm Beach County Democrat who is sponsoring the reform legislation, said he has been trying for the six years he has been in the Florida Legislature to change the way children who are charged with crimes are treated.

“And every year despite our efforts, the state of Florida continues to unfairly prosecute hundreds of children as adults. Well I’m here to say enough is enough,” Powell told the coalition members in a rally on the steps of Florida’s historic Capitol building.

Powell said one of the issues that troubles him is the disproportionate number of minority children who end up being prosecuted as adults.

One of those youths was Marquis McKenzie, who as an Orlando teenager served two years in the adult prison system for an armed robbery committed while he was 15.

McKenzie, now 28, said he made a “poor decision” as a teen-ager but has turned his life around since being released and serving four years of probation. He now runs a janitorial service, works with nonprofit groups and has been active in the effort to restore voting rights to felons who’ve served their sentences.

He said he’s finally been able to register to vote since Floridians approved  Amendment 4 last fall.

A prison, he said, was no place to send a child. He said the system is not prepared to deal with the unique needs of juveniles, including education and counseling services.

“Sending a child to prison is like sending a child from day care to a high school,” McKenzie said.

“I’m just asking that the state of Florida reform this system and give us a better opportunity. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be held accountable for our actions. But I don’t think we should be held accountable as an adult while we’re still a juvenile,” he said.

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