Thursday, April 24, 2014
Jonathan Todres writes about the the harsh impact of "Direct File" statutes and the continuing challenges of bringing the U.S. into line with international human rights law on treatment of juveniles.
In the past decade, hard work by advocates for children have resulted in three significant Supreme Court decisions on juvenile justice. In 2005, in Roper v. Simmons, the Supreme Court declared the death penalty to be “cruel and unusual” punishment as applied to juvenile offenders and thus unconstitutional. Advocates then focused on sentences of life without possibility of parole (LWOP). And in 2010, in Graham v. Florida, the Supreme Court held that it is unconstitutional to sentence juvenile offenders to life without parole for non-homicide defenses. Finally, in 2012, in Miller v Alabama, the Supreme Court extended its Graham ruling holding that all sentences of life without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders are unconstitutional. These Supreme Court decisions bring US law in line with international human rights law (notably the Convention on the Rights of the Child, or CRC) on two key juvenile justice issues.
However, as a new report reminds us, juvenile offenders still confront harsh treatment in many other ways in the criminal justice system. In Branded for Life: Florida’s Prosecution of Children as Adults under its "Direct File" Statute, Human Rights Watch reports that:
Florida transfers more children out of the juvenile system and into adult court than any other state. In the last five years alone, more than 12,000 juvenile crime suspects in Florida were transferred to the adult court system…. [D]ata show that more than 60 percent of the juveniles Florida transferred to adult court during this period were charged with nonviolent felonies. Only 2.7 percent were prosecuted for murder.….The new data show that nearly 98 percent of the juveniles in adult court in Florida end up there pursuant to the state’s “direct file” statute, which gives prosecutors unfettered discretion to move a wide range of juvenile cases to adult court (including any 16- and 17-year-old accused of a felony), with no involvement by a judge whatsoever.
Direct file statutes are just one means of diverting children into the adult system, an approach that is inconsistent with core principles of human rights law. Article 37 of the CRC mandates that: imprisonment of a child shall be used “for the shortest appropriate period of time” and that “[e]very child deprived of liberty shall be treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, and in a manner which takes into account the needs of persons of his or her age.”
Punishment for criminal actions is appropriate, but much more work remains to ensure that all state law treats each juvenile offender in a manner respects human dignity and is consistent with the age and maturity of that child.
As the late Nelson Mandela once said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” He did not say we are judged by how we treat only well-behaved children. It’s how we treat all children. Despite progress on significant juvenile justice issues in recent years, the latest evidence on direct file statutes reminds us that there is much more work to be done.