Some state lawmakers vote to add special review before juveniles are sent to adult jails

Florida juveniles wouldn’t be tossed into the adult court system until a judge gets a chance to review their criminal cases under a bill endorsed Tuesday by a House committee. Currently, prosecutors have the power to charge juvenile defendants as adults without any judicial review.

The legislation (HB 575) would require a judge to hold a hearing to decide whether prosecutors can charge juveniles as adults or have their cases returned to the juvenile system.The measure would also prohibit juveniles from being held in an adult jail until after the judge’s review. It would also eliminate the automatic transfer of juveniles into the adult courts for a series of criminal charges, although prosecutors would still have the discretionary power to charge those juveniles as adults.

The bill is a response to the fact that 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.

The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee unanimously endorsed the measure. But it still must clear two other committees before it can reach the House floor.

State Rep. James Bush, the Miami Democrat who is sponsoring the bill, said the legislation would provide “a due process, evidentiary hearing” for juveniles before they could be sent into the adult criminal justice system.

Rep. Juan Alfanso Fernandez-Barquin, a Miami Republican, is also sponsoring the bill.

The Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, which represents the 20 state attorneys in the state, remains opposed to the bill.

Scott McCoy, a lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center, praised the passage of the legislation, saying the current system “is out of balance and is failing Florida’s children.”

“Involving a neutral and independent judge in the vitally important decision of whether to hold Florida’s children accountable in the juvenile justice system or the adult criminal justice system is essential to ensure we achieve the best outcome for these children and public safety,” he said.

Similar legislation is pending in the Senate, although none of the bills have been heard by a committee.

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