Half of New York City Teens Behind Bars Have A Brain Injury, Study Finds

Half of New York City Teens Behind Bars Have A Brain Injury, Study Finds

By Nicole Flatow April 19, 2014 at 11:13 am Updated: April 19, 2014 at 11:13 am

Brain map

CREDIT: Shutterstock

About half of teens between the ages of 16 and 18 suffered a traumatic brain injury before being locked up in a New York City jail, a new study finds.

Traumatic brain injuries can cause mood and behavior changes that vary depending on the nature of the injury, but often include impulsiveness, emotional volatility, and slowed brain processing speeds. These factors not only contribute the likelihood of individuals ending up in jail; they also affect the proper treatment while there and their likelihood of returning once released.

“Two of the most common features of TBI, emotional dysregulation [mood volatility] and processing speed, may be linked to criminal justice involvement as well as problems while in jail,” according to the study in the Journal of Adolescent Health…




“Transgender Youth Confined In Adult Prison Writes Of Experiencing Extensive Past Sexual Abuse”

Written by Alex Leichenger

A transgender 16-year-old in Connecticut spends 22-23 hours per day in de facto solitary confinement at an adult prison, the youth’s affidavit states.

Under a seldom-used Connecticut statute, a judge ordered the transfer of the teenager to an adult correctional facility last week despite the absence of any charges against her. The youth, who identifies as female and has her identity concealed, is being housed in the York Correctional Institution for women despite the possibility she would be placed in an all-male facility. Although not in the official solitary confinement wing at York, the teenager is isolated from interaction.

“She’s essentially in an adult jail, but she has to be kept away from the adult population because she’s not an adult offender,” her attorney, Aaron Romano, told ThinkProgress. “And she has to be kept by law out of sight and sound of any other adult.”

The youth’s affidavit details a litany of abuse and neglect in her upbringing while under the Connecticut Department of Children and Families’ custody. The DCF has been her legal guardian since age five because her father was incarcerated and her mother had extensive issues with heroin, crack and alcohol, the affadavit states.

“I feel that DCF has failed to protect me from harm and I am now thrown into prison because they have refused to help me,” the incarcerated teenager writes.

After being sent away from her mother’s house to her grandmother’s residence, the youth writes that a cousin would coerce her into anal sex that caused her to lose control of her bowels. An uncle routinely beat her, and an aunt allegedly told her, “you’re a boy, what the fuck is wrong with you!” when she caught the child, then 11, wearing her lipstick and dress.

The youth allegedly endured instances of sexual abuse at two juvenile therapeutic facilities to which the DCF transferred her — at the Eagleton School in Massachusetts and Connecticut Children’s Place. Staff members at both facilities forced the girl into performing oral sex on them, the affadavit states.

She was targeted for even more sexual abuse after returning to the care of her mother at age 14. She became addicted to crack and involved in prostitution after moving to an aunt’s home, which landed her in several juvenile detention facilities.

A recent incident in which the youth retaliated to a guard bear-hugging her from behind was the impetus for her placement in the adult detention center, Romano said. The guard suffered a broken jaw and temporary blindness in one eye, according to a statement from the DCF. But Romano argued that his client interpreted the bear-hug as an attack due to her extensive experience with sexual abuse.

The DCF also claims that the youth had established a pattern of assaulting staff members and fellow inmates at Solnit Psychiatric Center in Middletown, Conn. and Bridgeport (Conn.) Juvenile Detention Center. After the conflict in Massachusetts, the teenager was reassigned to the Connecticut Juvenile Training School, an all-boys facility. But then she moved again to York, the women’s adult facility.

“The transfer of this youth to the Department of Correction is not in any way related to the youth’s gender identity,” the statement reads. “The transfer order was issued in order to protect other youths and staff — particularly female staff — from a person who has demonstrated over time a pattern of violence that targets females and, most recently, seriously injured a woman.”

But the teenager’s legal team, which includes a state-appointed public defender, James Connolly, and Romano, a federal attorney, is trying to prevent the transfer to an all-male facility. The youth is receiving female hormone treatment that would make her easily distinguishable in a male detention setting. Placement there would not only contradict her gender identity but put her at increased risk of sexual assault.

The attorneys are also challenging the constitutionality of the teenager’s court-ordered transfer to York. Written complaints filed by Romano argue that placing her in an adult prison violates the eighth and fourteenth amendments, plus the Prison Rape Elimination Act and the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act. Evidence cited in the passage of PREA shows that youth are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted in adult prisons than juvenile facilities and 36 times more likely to commit suicide.

Romano believes that the DCF has demonstrated gross negligence in caring for the child and made her vulnerable to even more trauma than she has already experienced.

“Where was DCF when she was being raped?” Romano said. “Where was DCF when she wasn’t going to school? … And now rather to take responsibility and provide their child the services that their child needs, they basically disowned her by putting her in jail.



or: http://www.care2.com/causes/trans-youth-confined-in-adult-prison-writes-about-extensive-history-of-sexual-abuse.html





Precocious Teen Gives Voice to ‘Juvenile Lifers’ in Michigan


Precocious Teen Gives Voice to ‘Juvenile Lifers’ in Michigan

Matilyn Sarori, who wrote the 23-page brief for the Michigan Supreme Court, stands in a courtroom at the Michigan Hall of Justice with Patrick Jaicomo, one of the two attorneys who submitted the brief.

At 16, the high school junior is equally comfortable quoting Jesus, Pope Francis and Mahatma Gandhi; research on adolescent brain development from the National Institutes of Health and the American Psychological Association; the Eighth Amendment and U.S. Supreme Court decisions; and “juvenile lifers” serving in Michigan prisons.

Matilyn Sarosi of Ann Arbor, Mich., puts it all together eloquently in a 23-page amicus curiae brief filed with the Michigan Supreme Court on behalf of three people who received sentences of mandatory life without parole as juveniles.

The idea took hold last October at the Sarosi family dinner table when Matilyn’s aunt, MaryAnn Sarosi, a public interest lawyer, mentioned she had been working on an amicus brief for the trio of juvenile life without parole cases before the Michigan Supreme Court.

MaryAnn Sarosi recalls telling her niece and other family members about that brief, which argues the three appellants should have a chance at parole:

“And Matilyn’s reaction when she heard that was, ‘Wait a minute, you could automatically put a 14- or 15-year-old into adult court and then they could be given mandatory life without parole even if they were the kid sitting in a car when the older brother went in to rob a clerk and then ended up killing him?’

“She said, ‘That’s outrageous. What can I do about it?’” MaryAnn Sarosi recalls. “I said, ‘Go write a brief.’ I never thought she would actually write the brief.”

So began Matilyn’s four-month quest to give voice to juvenile lifers serving in Michigan’s 31-prison system. (A decision in favor of the three appellants would also apply to the other 360 Michigan juvenile lifers.)

School Embraced Idea of Writing Brief

Matilyn broached the idea of writing the brief to teachers and administrators at her school, Father Gabriel Richard Catholic High School in Ann Arbor, and they embraced it right from the start.

“I go to a Catholic school, and we’re taught Catholic social teaching and the human dignity of each person,” Matilyn says. “And the fundamental belief in our faith is that humans are capable of beautiful things, and humans are capable of change and we have all been redeemed and we all have the capability to be rehabilitated and to change.

“Jesus himself was a prisoner at one point and he spent most of his time with the prisoners and the sick and the sinners and the prostitutes and the tax collectors, and we’re not excluded from that. We’re all sinners to some extent, and we’ve all been, and Jesus has shown us his love and justice and mercy.”

In her brief, Matilyn argues the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2012 Miller vs. Alabama decision, which declares mandatory juvenile life without parole sentences unconstitutional, should retroactively apply to the juvenile lifers in Michigan prisons.

Many states have applied Miller retroactively, giving juvenile lifers a chance at parole. But other states, including Michigan, and the federal government have not done so, leaving more than 2,500 juvenile lifers behind bars in legal limbo in U.S. prisons.

Matilyn’s amicus brief points to research on adolescent brain development that has been cited in the 5-4 Miller ruling and other recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

The high court has noted in those key decisions that juveniles’ brains are not fully developed, and youths are more susceptible than adults to peer pressure, more impulsive, more likely to take risks, less likely to consider long-term consequences and more amenable to rehabilitation.

The amicus brief also invokes scientific research on adolescent brain development by the American Psychological Association and by NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health, in a 2011 report titled “The Teen Brain: Still Under Construction.”

‘Give Us 10 Years and We’ll Change’

Hence the amicus brief’s statement: “We know from experience that children are immature, impulsive and reckless decision-makers, but give us 10 years and we’ll change.”

To win over other students at Father Gabriel Richard – about 450 of them, or roughly 85 percent of the student body, signed the amicus brief – Matilyn made about a dozen PowerPoint presentations to classes at the school in late January.

The Rev. Richard Lobert, the school’s chaplain, who also teaches four freshman theology courses, recalls being impressed by Matilyn’s presentation.

“It’s like she ripped a page right out of Catholic social justice teaching,” Father Lobert says.

In the presentations, Matilyn cited the case of Damion Todd (who is also noted in the amicus brief). Todd had been captain of his high school football team and an active member of his church and had never fired a gun.

In 1986, Todd and his friends were in a car outside a Detroit party when shots were fired at the car. Todd fired shots back at an angle with a shotgun, without intending to hit anyone, in hopes of scaring off people who had fired at the car, but he hit and killed someone. Todd, now serving a life without parole sentence, has earned a GED and taken college courses in prison and has reconciled with the shooting victim’s mother.

In the PowerPoint presentations, Matilyn also included the case of Cortez R. Davis, one of the three appellants whose cases are before the Michigan Supreme Court. Davis, then 16, participated in a 1993 street mugging in Detroit during which someone was killed, but did not fire any of the shots that killed the victim. He was convicted of first-degree murder.

Davis is hardly the only juvenile lifer in Michigan not directly responsible for killing anyone.

Many Juvenile Lifers Didn’t Kill Victim

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and the nonprofit Second Chances 4 Youth found in a 2012 report that more than 100 of the juvenile lifers in Michigan prisons were present during a homicide but did not kill the victim.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has said he opposes granting parole hearings to any of the 363 juvenile lifers in the state’s prisons, arguing Miller should not apply retroactively. Schuette’s office presented oral arguments at a March 6 Michigan Supreme Court hearing in the Michigan Hall of Justice in Lansing. (The conservative-majority court – composed of five men and two women – is expected to issue a ruling in the case by July 31, the end of its current term.)

In a statement released the day of the hearing, Schuette said: “First-degree murder is a serious crime, and it carries with it serious consequences. Considering even the possibility of new parole hearings for these convicted teen murderers will force victims’ families to relive the deaths of their loved ones. The integrity of our justice system demands crime victims and their families come first.”

Matilyn, who attended the hearing along with about 25 students in her Advanced Placement U.S. History class, said in the brief she sympathizes with the victims’ families and does not play down their pain.

“The pain of losing a loved one in such a violent and destructive way is an unimaginable burden,” she wrote. “Few among us can pretend to understand the depths of such heartache, because we do not carry such heavy burdens. Vengeance is a human response, especially to such acts of injustice, yet our justice system cannot be based upon gut reactions and vengeance.”

She quotes Mahatma Gandhi: “An eye for an eye would make the whole world blind.”

And Jesus: “If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.”

Matilyn notes murder victims’ families also filed an amicus brief with the Michigan Supreme Court, urging that Miller be applied retroactively to juvenile lifers.

“That’s beautiful evidence of the fact that you can find peace and healing in forgiveness and reconciliation,” she says.

Trauma in Lives of Juvenile Lifers

Matilyn’s brief also points out the trauma many of those incarcerated as juveniles have endured.

It cites a 2012 nationwide survey by The Sentencing Project, a national nonprofit, that found almost 80 percent of the more than 2,500 juvenile lifers nationwide had witnessed violence in their homes, and nearly half had witnessed weekly violence in their neighborhoods. The survey also found more than 77 percent of females sentenced as children to life without parole had been sexually abused and nearly half of all juvenile lifers had been physically abused.

The overwhelming majority of Michigan juvenile lifers – about 75 percent – also are people of color, and many were so poor they couldn’t afford counsel, says Shelli Weisberg, legislative director of the ACLU of Michigan, in an interview. “And we have a terrible indigent defense system here,” Weisberg adds.

In the amicus brief, Matilyn states: “We don’t view the individuals [Michigan juvenile lifers] involved in these cases as inherently evil. We believe factors in their lives like where they were raised or the stability of their family environment had a lot to do with their actions and we think to ourselves, ‘There but for the Grace of God go I.’”

Trauma in the juvenile lifers’ lives, the brief says, should have been taken into account when they were sentenced to life without parole, and Miller requires that such trauma be considered in resentencing.

Matilyn’s mother, Kimm Sarosi, a nurse, and her father, Michael Sarosi, a radiologist, tried to instill lessons of Catholic social teaching in her and her older brother and sister (twins now in college) from a young age.

As a young girl, Matilyn volunteered with her parents at two homeless shelters and she now volunteers during summers at a nursing home.

“It’s one thing as a parent to teach it, but how proud Mike and I are that she really is trying to practice social justice, that she’s trying to make a bit of a difference,” Matilyn’s mother says. “She’s a very sensitive soul.”

Many Michigan juvenile lifers would agree.

Inmates Express Gratitude

At least 50 of them have expressed their gratitude to Matilyn in letters, cards and artistic posters.

The Father Gabriel Richard school chaplain, Father Lobert, says many of the inmates expressed similar sentiments:

“What they’re saying basically is: ‘You’ve given us hope. It just doesn’t seem like there are people out there that really care. It’s like they turned the lock, and we’re forgotten now….  You’ve given us hope because we didn’t know that there was really anybody out there that cared.’

“And this is repeated over and over,” Father Lobert says, “so she’s really touched a nerve.”

One former Michigan juvenile lifer whose sentence was commuted by former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm was so grateful she bought the entire student body at Father Gabriel Richard pizzas and sent along a note that was read to the students.

“Thank you for believing that adults who committed crimes while they were children deserve a serious parole review. Thank you for believing in people like me!” the note said.

“Your advocacy is instilling much-needed hope to all the men and women who are still incarcerated for crimes they committed while they were children. Your work and spirit are  propelling these men and women to believe they are worthy of a second chance!”

Jody Kent Lavy, director and national coordinator of the Washington-based Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, also praises Matilyn.

“She’s obviously an extraordinary individual, says Lavy, whose organization opposes all life without parole sentences for juveniles. “And we’re delighted that she took the time and effort to do all of the work to bring this about both because it’s important to hear their [students’] perspective but also to know that young people understand what we’re doing to our teens.

“The students approach it from a faith perspective,” Lavy adds, “and we have really seen that across the board, people of all different faiths, all different religions agree that we need to give our young people a second chance and that our society should not be in the process of judging people, particularly young people, for the rest of their lives based on their greatest failures, and rather should be looking at their potential as human beings.”

For her part, Matilyn – an honors student, president of her junior class, varsity soccer player and forensics team member – says her foray into the legal realm opened her eyes to a possible legal career.

“I wasn’t considering it before and now I am,” she says.

Ask her why, and she’ll tell you: “It was the process of writing the brief and getting a feel for the real world of legal justice and of a lawyer and witnessing the Supreme Court in action and seeing attorneys and seeing that this profession could do great things.”

Financial supporters of The JJIE may be quoted or mentioned in our stories. They may also be the subjects of our stories.

Solitary Confinement and Teens Shouldn’t Mix

Solitary Confinement and Teens Shouldn’t Mix


CIR_bug_square_1000Dr. Bruce Perry is a child psychiatrist and senior fellow at the ChildTrauma Academy in Houston and adjunct professor of psychiatry at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. His neuroscientific research has focused largely on the effects of trauma on brain development. He has consulted on high-profile cases involving children in crisis, including the Columbine High School massacre, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Waco, Texas, siege, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Here, Perry explains to The Center for Investigative Reporting how it feels to be a teenager locked in solitary confinement, and the effects of isolation on the developing brain. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

The Center for Investigative Reporting: How do kids experience isolation?

Dr. Bruce Perry: Almost all of them start to retreat into their inner world because there’s nowhere else to get stimulation. Some of these kids, without any external relational anchors, start to go crazy. They’ll have ruminations about what they’re going to do to that person who got them in trouble, and that can morph into murderous fantasies. The brain is so used to a variety of sensory input that in the absence of that, over time, they start to hallucinate and get paranoid. You can literally make people crazy by keeping them in solitary.

CIR: We hear a lot of stories about prolonged isolation, but what are the effects of just a few days of solitary confinement on kids?

Dr. Perry: They end up getting these very intense doses of dissociative experience, and they get it in an unpredictable way. They’ll get three days in isolation. Then they’ll come back on the unit and get two days in isolation. They’ll come back out and then get one day. They end up with a pattern of activating this dissociative coping mechanism. The result is that when they’re confronted with a stressor later on, they will have this extreme disengagement where they’ll be kind of robotic, overly compliant, but they’re not really present. I’ve seen that a lot with these kids. They’ll come out, and they’re little zombies. The interpretation by the staff is that they’ve been pacified. “We’ve broken him.” But basically what you’ve done is you’ve traumatized this person in a way that if this kid was in somebody’s home, you would charge that person with child abuse.

CIR: You’ve worked with young people inside solitary confinement units. What are those places like?

Dr. Perry: They tend to be stereotypical institutional settings with cinderblock walls and tile floors and colors that are just drab, almost depressing in their nature. A lot of echoing sounds and reverberation. These are sensory experiences that are atypical. The natural world has a certain ebb and flow, it has a rhythm to it, a smoothness to the sounds that we hear. You go into institutional settings and the architecture creates a sensory environment that is unfamiliar and unsettling. Some places don’t have natural light. Some keep the lights on all the time, so your biorhythms get all messed up. Some places will be eerily silent, particularly if you’re in isolation, and some places will be persistently noisy, so any effort to sleep or regulate yourself is interfered with. The environment is physiologically disrespectful.

CIR: Kids in isolation must lose all sense of control. What’s the impact of that?

Dr. Perry: One of things that helps us regulate our stress response is a sense of control. With solitary, when you start to take away any option, any choice, you’re literally taking somebody with a dysregulated stress response system, like most of these individuals in jail, and you’re making it worse. The more you try to take control, the more you are inhibiting the ability of these individuals to develop self-control, which is what we want them to do.

CIR: How does it affect a kid’s sense of self-worth to be locked away from everyone else?

Dr. Perry: Most of these kids feel marginalized to start with. They feel like they’re bad, they did something wrong, they don’t fit in. And isolation is essentially the ultimate marginalization. You’re so marginalized you don’t even fit in with the misfits, and we are going to exclude you from the group in an extreme way. In some ways it’s the ultimate message that we don’t care for you. We are neurobiologically interdependent creatures. All of our sensory apparatus is bias toward forming and maintaining relationships with human beings. When you are not part of the group, it’s a fundamental biological rejection.

CIR: We interviewed several teenagers about their experience in solitary confinement and asked them what they think about while they’re in there. Almost without exception, they went straight to grief and loss, loved ones who had died, often prematurely and in horrible ways. Why do you think that is?

Dr. Perry: Isolation, the experience of being separated from human beings, for them, is reminiscent of the separation that happened earlier from people who were meaningful to them. The feeling is evocative of the last time they felt so disconnected or felt the loss of human interactions. The amount of loss and exposure to violence and trauma that most of these kids have is pretty astounding. So it triggers relational-based memories, and right at the top of those would be memories around loss and grief.

CIR: A common argument from corrections professionals is that they have no choice but to isolate kids who are unruly or violent. How should we be designing our juvenile justice facilities so that they not only promote healthy development, but also provide safety without using solitary?

Dr. Perry: There’s an approach called collaborative problem-solving, which has shown tremendous effectiveness with dysregulated, explosive individuals. It’s not like we’re going to ignore the issue, but we’re going to acknowledge it and talk about a solution that we come up with together. And when you do that, it literally defuses things in a very powerful way. It’s ironic that in many of these models of intervention — mental health, education, juvenile justice — rather than taking advantage of the major biological unit of leverage we have for healthy development, which is the relationship, we actually make it more relationally impoverished.


This Q&A was produced by The Center for Investigative Reporting, an award-winning, nonprofit newsroom based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Learn more at cironline.org.

U.S. Imprisonment Rate Continues to Drop Amid Falling Crime Rates

Originally posted on www.HumansinShadow.wordpress.com:

oject Update

U.S. Imprisonment Rate Continues to Drop Amid Falling Crime Rates

More than half of states cut imprisonment rates from 2007–12

Over the past five years, imprisonment rates fell in 31 states.1 California, which was ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court to reduce its prison population, led the way with a 26 percent drop, though many state inmates are now held in local facilities. Fourteen other states reduced their imprisonment rates by 10 percent or more from 2007 to 2012. (See chart)

States with imprisonment rate reductions
of 10 percent or more (2007–12)

% Reduction
Hawaii and Massachusetts
Connecticut and Rhode Island
New Jersey
New York
South Carolina
Nevada and Michigan
Alaska, Maryland, and Texas

At the other end of the spectrum, 15 states increased their imprisonment rates…

View original 207 more words

Understanding Issues Children Face


Understanding Issues Children Face


Children facing detention do not find themselves in hot water overnight. In most cases, the issues they struggle with are ongoing problems, which eventually manifest in behavior leading to formal charges. Unfortunately, many young people do not have support structures sufficient to see the writing on the wall, before it is too late to intervene. As a result, keeping kids out of detention remains a collective responsibility, challenging every adult member of society to step-up on kids’ behalf.

Often, extraordinary measures are not required in order to have a positive impact on children’s lives. Simply tuning-in to the challenges they face can have life-changing affects for children striving to surmount difficulties and lead productive lives.

Whether they are your children or not; using time-tested strategies to assist troubled kids heads-off serious consequences, like detention. What can you do to help kids excel? While each case is different, using these fundamental approaches can lead to drastic improvements for many children.

Start by Listening

Adults face their own hurdles in life, so there is a tendency across society to short-change children grappling with uncertainty. Listening to a child sheds light on the things he or she finds troubling, furnishing clues about their behavior. As you take-in what kids have to say, resist the urge to oversimplify their problems. While they may seem less significant than grown-up issues like making ends meet and maintaining a household, children’s concerns are nonetheless valid.

Recognize the Many Faces of Childhood Angst

In many cases, children face issues in today’s society, which were not major concerns during recent decades. Drugs, for example, are more varied and prolific than the mind-altering substances embraced by past generations. Not only does personal use of addictive drugs like Methamphetamine and Heroin impact kids’, but parents using drugs also undermines many children’s ability to live normal lives. Other social influences, like family problems, illness, neglect and abuse weigh heavily on kids’ outlook as well, so it is essential to account for the wide-ranging sources of pressure children feel.

Commit for the Long Haul

Troubled kids show signs of distress in a variety of ways, including emotional disorders, behavioral problems and cognitive shortcomings in school. Righting the ship does not happen overnight, so getting to the root of children’s problems is only the beginning for those committed to helping them succeed. To make a real difference, manage expectations as you share counsel with young people, resisting the urge to give-up when they act-out in unpredictable ways. For many kids, historical abandonment plays a role in their dysfunctional behavior, so recognizing adults as long-term partners is unfamiliar territory. Establishing ongoing trust with youth keeps adults in the loop, increasing the chances they’ll see serious problems on the horizon before children land in detention.

Bring Consistency to the Table

Kids need structure in their lives to succeed – they simply aren’t capable of making prudent decisions on their own. When structure and support break-down, children improvise in ways that don’t always take them down the right paths. By furnishing stability, adults reinforce good decision-making, preparing kids to overcome the inevitable challenges life has in store for them.

In large part, kids on the road to detention are not equipped to alter their courses without help. Adults committed to preventing negative outcomes use communication, empathy, and understanding to help kids manage life’s trials and tribulations, enabling them to break the cycle of dysfunctional behavior.


Daphne Holmes contributed this guest post. She is a writer from arrestrecords.com and you can reach her at daphneholmes9@gmail.com.




Veröffentlicht am 10.04.2014

US: Florida Arbitrarily Prosecuting Children as Adults

Criminal Records Brand Youth for Life
April 10, 2014
  • What Florida Should Do
    Prosecutors in Florida are using unfettered power to send children to adult court unfairly and arbitrarily. The state should give that power to independent juvenile court judges.

(Tallahassee) – Every year, the state of Florida arbitrarily and unfairly prosecutes hundreds of children as adults, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. If convicted, these children suffer the lifelong consequences of an adult felony record for what are often low-level, nonviolent offenses.

The 110-page report, “Branded for Life: Florida’s Prosecution of Children as Adults under its ‘Direct File’ Statute,” details the harm that results from the state’s practice of giving prosecutors full discretion to decide which children to prosecute in adult courts. More than 98 percent of the 1,500 cases of children charged as adults between 2012 and 2013 were brought by prosecutors under the direct file statute. The law offers no opportunity for a judge to review or reverse the prosecutor’s decision, no matter how unsuitable the case is for criminal court.

“The children caught up in the ‘direct file’ law cannot legally vote, drink, or buy cigarettes in the state of Florida,” said Alba Morales, a US researcher at Human Rights Watch and the author of the report. “Yet they can be tried as adults with no judge evaluating that decision, and branded as felons for life.”

While children who commit crimes can and should be held accountable, doing so in adult courts and prisons is both unnecessary and harmful to society and youth, Human Rights Watch said. Rather than enhancing public safety, studies indicate, trying children in the adult criminal justice system produces higher recidivism rates for these offenders than for those who are kept in the juvenile justice system.

Children are less mature in their judgment and self-control than adults, and above all, are still developing and have great potential to change. The juvenile system is intended to rehabilitate and to balance the needs of society and the best interests of the child, while the adult criminal justice system emphasizes punishment over all else. Children prosecuted as adults lose access to age-appropriate education and programming provided under the juvenile court system. Young people describe feeling confused and abandoned in adult court. Many encounter violence in adult jails and prisons.

“In adult court, they want to lock us up,” one youth, a boy, told Human Rights Watch. “In juvenile court they want to help us make better choices.”

For nearly every child charged and convicted in adult court in Florida, the end result is an adult felony record that will harm him or her for life. A few cases result in misdemeanor or other non-felony convictions. Those with felony convictions are barred from many types of employment and suffer many other deprivations, including permanent loss of the right to vote.

Prosecutors may contend that they transfer young offenders to adult court for only the most serious crimes. But of the children tried in adult court in Florida in 2012 and 2013, 60 percent had been accused of nonviolent offenses, according to data Human Rights Watch analyzed.

Human Rights Watch spoke to over 100 youth and family members of youth charged directly in adult court by Florida’s prosecutors. Among the cases reviewed were:

  • “Oliver,” prosecuted in adult court at age 16 for stealing two laptops from a classroom;
  • “Matthew,” charged with burglary as an adult at age 17 for breaking into the back porch of a home and taking a printer that was stored there;
  • “Karl,” who said the 25-year sentence he faced for the adult court charges of criminal mischief and assault for offenses committed at age 15 and 16, was “a long time to be away from my grandmother”; and
  • “Scott,” who was wrongfully arrested and charged as an adult, but who has not been able to attend one of Florida’s firefighting academies as he planned because his arrest as an adult remains on his record even though the charges were dismissed. 

The report also includes new statistics developed by Human Rights Watch showing that the overwhelming power Florida has handed to prosecutors is playing out in arbitrary and unjust ways. Florida’s judicial circuits send arrested children to adult court and impose harsh adult punishments at vastly different rates, though the differences cannot be explained by the seriousness of offenses, the size of youth populations in the various circuits, or any other neutral criteria Human Rights Watch examined. In some circuits, evidence suggests that racial bias may affect who is sent for an adult trial.

“The same child, accused of the same offense, may receive vastly different treatment based on nothing more than which prosecutor is in charge of their case,” Morales said. “These decisions should be handled by Florida’s juvenile judges, who can ensure fair treatment, not by prosecutors who have a vested interest in getting defendants to plead guilty or in punitive outcomes.”

The US Supreme Court, in a series of four recent cases, has underscored what every parent knows – that children are developmentally less mature, and more capable of rehabilitation. Their punishment should take into account their diminished culpability and their capacity to change, Human Rights Watch said. Judgments about punishment are best made by the juvenile system, which takes these factors into account.

“Florida should stop its widespread practice of saddling children with adult felony records that offer no recognition of their capacity to change,” Morales said. “Children, including teens, can be held accountable without subjecting them to treatment as harsh as that which the state of Florida is handing out.”

For more information: http://www.hrw.org/node/124467