TALLAHASSEE - As state legislators have tried and failed to craft a juvenile-sentencing law that conforms to landmark U.S. Supreme Court rulings, a national advocacy group is calling Florida a "clear outlier" among states for its hard-line approach to trying juveniles as adults.
The Washington-based Campaign for Youth Justice, which opposes incarcerating youths under 18 as adults, says Florida transfers more teens to adult criminal court than any other state.
"These tough-on-crime laws are ineffective at keeping kids from re-offending," said the group's policy director, Carmen Daugherty. "Florida needs to take additional steps to reform its juvenile justice system."
Daugherty said youths who are incarcerated in the adult criminal-justice system are 34 percent more likely to commit other crimes after release.
But while the advocacy group praised Florida Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Wansley Walters, who has championed diversion programs for youth offenders, Walters took issue with their charge that the state is out of step. She said Florida "is not an outlier."
"We're chipping away,'' Walters said. "We've seen almost a quarter-reduction in arrests. We're seeing fewer and fewer kids get direct-filed (as adults), fewer and fewer kids getting sent away, fewer and fewer kids landing in the deep end (of the juvenile justice system)."
According to DJJ figures, Florida's commitment of low- and moderate-risk youth has decreased by 62 percent during Walters' two-and-a-half-year tenure at the agency.
The group's report comes as lawmakers prepare to take up juvenile sentencing proposals during the spring legislative session - including the use of risk-assessment tools and diversion programs to keep all but the worst offenders out of the deep end of the juvenile justice system, where the likelihood of recidivism is greatest.
Lawmakers also are gearing up for yet another try at sentencing juveniles under recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings that restrict the use of life sentences.
Three years ago, in Graham v. Florida, the high court banned life sentences for juveniles convicted of non-homicide crimes. And last year, in Miller v. Alabama, the high court found that juveniles convicted of murder can still face life sentences, but the judges must weigh criteria such as the offenders' maturity and the nature of the crimes before imposing that sentence.
Since the Graham decision in 2010, the Legislature has taken up bills that would have allowed life sentences for juveniles with the possibility of release if they show signs of rehabilitation. So far, none has passed.
And given the vacuum, the justices of the Florida Supreme Court last month suggested that they could impose a review system for juvenile sentences, when they heard cases involving 70-year and 90-year terms.
"The legislators in all the states like to point their fingers at the judiciary and say they're being proactive," said state Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth, who has both law enforcement and prosecutorial experience. "But how can we blame them if we're not willing to step up to the plate and pass a bill and have it signed into law?"
"We of the Legislature have a duty to provide clarity to the courts," said state Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican and former prosecutor. "I understand why the Florida Supreme Court is discussing how to deal with this issue in the recent cases that they heard. I understand their frustration, and I look forward to participating with my colleagues this session in providing some clear guidance to the courts going forward."
Bradley, whose 2013 proposal (SB 1350) died on the last day of session, said he hasn't decided whether to try again next year.
Both he and Kerner make a sharp distinction between juveniles convicted of homicide and non-homicide crimes.
"My main concern continues to be whenever you have a murder victim, that that family not be required to relive that heinous act by having to come back and have hearings after hearings in the future, once the trial has resolved and the murderer is sentenced," Bradley said.
He added that he's more flexible in the cases of defendants who did not commit murder.
In the House, Kerner said, "Everybody seems to be at the table."
He said he's told House Criminal Justice Chairman Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, and Vice Chairman Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota, that a bipartisan solution to juvenile sentencing is one of his top priorities.
"No one wants to be soft on crime," Kerner said. "But we also don't want to miss out on an opportunity to have meaningful participation and meaningful rehabilitation of the juveniles in our society who have done wrong. And we need to craft a bill that finds that balance."