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Florida should not lead the way in locking up juveniles

Florida is No. 1 in the nation when it comes to convicting juveniles of adult charges. The state also leads the way in giving minors life sentences for non-deadly crimes.

According to Reuters, of the estimated 111 defendants under the age of 18 sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for a crime other than murder, a whopping 70 percent are in Florida.

Compared to the rest of the nation, Florida seems far too harsh on minors, even accounting for the state’s large population.

Florida is the fourth most populous state but still beats Texas, New York and California – which have larger populations – in criminal charges.

Either Florida’s youth are significantly more dangerous than the average American minor, or the state legal system makes it too easy to bring adult charges against juveniles.

Certainly some teens have committed serious offenses and deserve strong punishments, but Florida should not be so willing to bring adults charges against lesser crimes.

According to a St. Petersburg Times review of Florida Department of Juvenile Justice data, 3,592 juveniles were transferred to adult court during the 2007-08 fiscal year, a 45 percent increase from 2003-04.

By volume, Hillsborough County was the top county in the state, transferring 660 juveniles in 2007-08. The largest concentration came from the Tampa Bay area, with Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando, Citrus and Manatee charging 1,410 minors as adults.

Whether minors should be tried as adults at all is still a controversial issue. A 2003 study by the private MacArthur Foundation found that many children under 16 years old are not competent enough to aid their defense in court.

More than 1,400 subjects between the ages of 11 and 24 were given intelligence tests and asked to respond to several hypothetical legal situations. The study found that one-third of subjects ages 11 to 13 and one-fifth of those 14 to 15 couldn’t understand court proceedings well enough to aid their defense.

The U.S. Supreme Court is hearing two cases from Florida juveniles who were given life sentences for non-lethal crimes. While some want the Court to rule all life sentences for minors in non-lethal cases unconstitutional, juveniles should continue to be sentenced on a case-by-case basis.

During the hearings, Chief Justice John Roberts said rather than imposing such a ban, judges should consider each defendant’s age and the real sentence for each crime committed.

While Florida may not want to go too light on serious offenders, a change needs to be made. The No. 1 ranking proves it.