Supreme Court Decision Challenges Juvenile Transfer Laws; Orlando Juvenile Defense Attorney Richard O. Hale Examines the Impact the Opinion Has on Juvenile Law Reform

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Florida juvenile cases continue to reach the U. S. Supreme Court as Florida juvenile transfer laws are challenged; Orlando juvenile defense attorney Richard O. Hale addresses the debate regarding punishing juveniles charged as adults.

Currently, Florida’s approach to juvenile justice encourages punishment as opposed to guidance. Hopefully the Supreme Court’s decision will heighten the necessary urgency to extensively reform the juvenile justice system in Florida.

The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in the 2010 case of Graham v. Florida (Case No. 08-7412) to abolish juvenile life without parole sentences (JLWOP) in non-homicide cases has drawn much attention across the country. The ruling opened up momentous opportunity in Florida for persons convicted as adults for felony crimes committed while still a minor. An article published by the Campaign for Youth Justice in October 2011, written by Neelum Arya, urges attorneys to challenge Florida juvenile law using the Graham v. Florida verdict to possibly reduce sentencing for juveniles tried as adults in the past decade.

Thirteen states presently have some form of juvenile transfer law, which are designed to be tough on juvenile offenders, but studies show conflicting results on whether lowering the minimum transfer age, increasing the number of offenses eligible for transfer, and using limited judicial discretion to prosecute juveniles as adults actually makes a positive difference. Chapter 985.565 of the Florida Statutes discusses juvenile sentencing and punishment, including criminal transfers to adult court in the state of Florida. Whether the court chooses to transfer a minor to be tried as an adult usually depends on several factors, including the severity of the crime, if anyone was injured or property damaged as a result of the crime, maturity of the defendant, and previous criminal history. The law does however require any juvenile accused of committing auto theft or carjacking resulting in serious injury to be prosecuted in criminal court.

According to Orlando felony crimes lawyer Richard Hale, “Exploitative use of Florida’s juvenile transfer laws interferes with creating an objective defense for juveniles accused of felony crimes. This verdict sends a message that the U.S. Supreme Court recognizes the injustice and should alert Florida prosecutors to more cautiously approach juvenile transfer requests.”

Many in opposition to Florida’s insistent use of juvenile transfers believe the state has not enacted a sufficient program to educate and address high risk youth about Florida’s adamant enforcement and more serious consequences regarding juvenile transfers. Reformists argue that without creating awareness of the law, it has no constructive effect on juvenile crime prevention, and therefore, its rational becomes null and void. The article ‘Juvenile Transfer Laws: An Effective Deterrent to Delinquency?’ by Richard E. Redding in a bulletin published by the Florida’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (JJDP) proposes questions such as:

  •     Are juveniles aware of transfer laws?
  •     Do they believe the laws will be enforced against them?
  •     Does this awareness and belief deter criminal behavior?

Orlando juvenile defense attorney Richard Hale discussed why it’s important to examine these questions. “Florida adopted juvenile transfer laws to attack extremely high juvenile crime rates in the 1990s, but low awareness of the law among youthful offenders just leads to improper sentencing.” Hale further explained, “Studies prove youth offenders who spend long periods of time in jail are more likely to become repeat offenders and commit more serious crimes. Essentially, since Florida did not responsibly implement an awareness campaign emphasizing extreme punishments for juveniles tried as adults, juvenile transfer laws are hurting more than helping the juvenile justice system in Florida.”

The ruling comes not long after Florida was chosen as one of four states to participate in the Juvenile Justice System Improvement Project (JJSIP), administered by Georgetown University's Center for Juvenile Justice Reform (CJJR). The project seeks to reform juvenile justice around the nation by targeting youth at high risk to become repeat offenders and evaluate their needs on a case-by-case basis. The more personalized system towards preventing youthful offenders from committing crimes would focus on lessening the use of detention, institutionalization and other forms of out of home placement, particularly for lower-risk juvenile offenders, and enact a more efficient use of resources.

CJJR commenced its change to Florida’s juvenile justice system in Pinellas County and will continue to work its way throughout the state during the 18-month project. The CJJR anticipates the project will generate positive long-term changes for youth at high risk including: increased probation completion rates among juvenile offenders, reduced racial and ethnic disparities in juvenile justice processing, decreased school dropout, increased school attendance, increased stability of school placement, increased school performance among juvenile offenders, and reduced mental health symptoms and substance abuse among juvenile offenders.

While Florida’s strict juvenile laws and sentencing have become a controversial topic around the county, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) Annual Report FY2010-11 shows total delinquent juvenile referrals have continually decreased in the past decade and hit its lowest point in history this year. In association with this trend, the number of delinquency cases in Florida transferred to adult court declined 5%, from 2009 to 2010, according to the DJJ Five Year Juvenile Delinquency Trends and Conditions report.

Despite decreasing juvenile crime in Florida, the state still clearly stands out as having the most ridged juvenile transfer legislation in the country; fifty percent more than Arizona, which was second in the number of transferred youths to adults. Florida’s broad prosecutorial discretion may cause reason for this large disparity among states enforcing juvenile transfers. Most Florida transfers occur as a result of prosecutorial request, immediately after an arrest. Florida allows prosecutors to request juvenile transfers to anyone 16 years or older committed of a felony crime, any juvenile age 14 or older who committed of a violent felony or burglary, and any juvenile who committed of a homicide.

“Studies prove guidance versus punishment has a greater effect on detouring criminally active youth from becoming chronic offenders. Currently, Florida’s approach to juvenile justice encourages punishment as opposed to guidance. Hopefully the Supreme Court’s decision will heighten the necessary urgency to extensively reform the juvenile justice system in Florida,” stated Hale.

Richard O. Hale of Hale, Hale & Jacobson, P. A. is a criminal defense attorney in Orlando and represents clients throughout greater central Florida, including the surrounding areas of Orange County, Osceola County, Seminole County, Kissimmee, Apopka, Maitland, Kissimmee, Winter Garden, Ococee, St. Cloud and Winter Park.


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