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Direct File: A Nightmare For Florida Teens


Most adults, if they are being honest, will tell you of times when they engaged in dangerous or thoughtless behavior.  Whether you regard the incidents from your youth that reflect the worst on your character with humor or horror most likely depends on the consequences.  If a youthful mistake led to a disproportionate punishment, you probably want to forget that it never happened, or else warn other people against getting into situations that could lead to similar penalties.  For a moment of youthful folly to turn into an amusing anecdote usually requires the protagonist to learn from his or her mistakes in a way that is not especially painful.  Going through juvenile court, and especially being adjudicated delinquent, is not a pleasant experience, but when the juvenile justice system functions as it is intended to function, teens and young adults emerge from it in a position to put their experience behind them and avoid future interactions with the justice system.  When minors get charged as adults, however, it is a different story.  Here, our Miami criminal defense lawyer explains how juvenile cases can proceed in Florida, which refers more minors to adult criminal court than any other state.

How Do Juvenile Delinquency Cases End Up in Adult Criminal Court?

When a person under the age of 18 gets arrested on suspicion of a crime, the default option is for the case to go to juvenile court.  When this happens, even if the teen is adjudicated delinquent and spends time in juvenile detention, he or she will not get a permanent criminal record as a result of the juvenile case.  The law allows for three ways in which it is possible for minors to be tried as adults.  When a minor pleads guilty in adult criminal court or is convicted at a jury trial, the judge hands down the same sentence that would apply if the defendant were 18 or older.  These are the three methods of transferring juvenile cases to adult court:

  • Direct file – Prosecutors recommend processing the case in criminal court. Since this decision is made by prosecutors and not by a judge, it cannot be appealed.
  • Judicial waiver – A judge issues a decision to send the case to adult criminal court. Like almost all judicial decisions, this decision is subject to appeal.
  • Grand jury indictment – After hearing evidence, a grand jury decides that there is sufficient evidence to charge the defendant with a felony. This process is similar, regardless of whether the defendant is an adult or a minor.

Prosecutors have the option to direct file juvenile cases when the defendant is 16 or 17 years old and is accused of a felony.  In addition, there are 21 felony offenses for which prosecutors can direct file cases against 14-year-old or 15-year-old defendants; most of these offenses involve physical violence or non-consensual behavior.

Florida Direct File Statistics

The number of total juvenile arrests has declined in recent years, but Florida is still the worst state to get arrested as a teen.  According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Florida charges more teen defendants as adults than any other state; more than 4,000 teen defendants go through adult criminal court each year.  98 percent of these cases involve direct file.  Direct file of juvenile cases disproportionately affects Black teens.  Black teens account for 61 percent of direct file cases, despite accounting for only 46 percent of total juvenile arrests.

Florida Teen Narrowly Avoids Life Sentence

Now in his 30s, Marquis McKenzie is a father, a small business owner, and a coalition volunteer for No Place for Children, a juvenile justice reform organization.  When McKenzie was 15 years old, he stole a cell phone and a wallet and was charged as an adult with armed robbery.  If convicted, he could have faced a life sentence.  McKenzie accepted a plea deal and served a two-year sentence in Indian River Juvenile Correctional Facility, followed by four years of probation.  McKenzie earned his high school diploma during his incarceration.  He now urges lawmakers to raise the age for charging young people accused of crimes in adult court.  Meanwhile, there are people incarcerated in Florida prisons who have been there since they were too young to get a driver’s license.

Contact Our Criminal Defense Attorneys

You have the right to hire a lawyer to represent you in juvenile court.  A South Florida criminal defense lawyer can help you if you are being accused of a felony, but you are younger than 18.  Contact Ratzan & Faccidomo in Miami, Florida for a free, confidential consultation about your case.





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