You wouldn’t take a baby out of daycare and put him in high school. But in this country, we routinely take children who’ve committed crimes out of the juvenile justice system and try them as adults.
That’s wrong, and it needs to change.
I’m speaking from experience. I was 15 years old when I made a horrible mistake. I was arrested for armed robbery and sent to the adult criminal court system.
I’ve paid for my actions and tried to do everything I can to be a good son, a good father, and a good citizen since I got out of prison. But I should never have been in the adult system, and I’m doing everything I can to keep other children out of it.
I had never heard of “direct file” at the time I was arrested. But after being in a juvenile facility for 21 days I went before a judge and was told that I was going to adult court under Florida’s direct file statute. My lawyers couldn’t stop this from happening, and neither could the judge.
In Florida prosecutors decide when to take a child and send them to adult court. In some other states a defense lawyer can challenge it, and a judge can stop the prosecution from doing it, but judges don’t have that power here.
Even though I was 15 years old, under the law I could have been sentenced to life in prison. The prosecutor in my case wanted me locked up for 10 years. Luckily, because of my good behavior I got into a transitional program that allowed me to get my high school diploma.
Because of that, I got a youth offender plea deal. The judge chose to sentence me to two years in prison and four years of probation.
Transitioning from prison was tough. When my children went on field trips, I wasn’t allowed to accompany them. It was very hard to find employment, and there weren’t a lot of resources to help someone like me.
But I did the best I could. I am now a successful business owner, starting my own cleaning business when I was 25.
I’m also doing everything I can to help people who are now in the same situation. With over a decade of hindsight, I understand that prosecuting a child as an adult is profoundly unjust.
The adult system is not prepared to help these children mentally or emotionally, and the people who work in adult prisons are trained to deal with adults, not children whose brains are still developing.
I have spoken to parents who are distraught after seeing their child sentenced to 30 years in prison for a crime that child committed at 15. Many of these parents don’t expect to live long enough to ever see their child outside of prison again.
And there is no reason why this should happen. Yes, children who commit crimes need to be held responsible. But they should take responsibility as children, not adults. And when you come home it should be behind you. It shouldn’t follow you for the rest of your life.
Despite the injustice of what happened to me, I know I was lucky compared to others. Now, thanks to Amendment 4, I’m a voter for the first time in my adult life. I hope my elected officials listen to people like me and change the law to stop prosecuting children as adults, because what is being done to these children is not justice.
The author, who lives in Orlando, is a member of the No Place for a Child Coalition.