Judges matter when it comes to treating kids like kids
Cuyahoga County prosecutor Michael O’Malley attempted to try a 15-year-old boy accused of murder as an adult. The child was accused of shooting 16-year-old Alexander Mullins in an abandoned building in Cleveland’s Slavic Village. O’Malley’s effort to try the child in adult court was rejected by Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court Judge Alison Floyd, who found that the child still had a chance at rehabilitation.
Judge Floyd’s ruling will have massive consequences for the boy. If he’s convicted in juvenile court, the child would have to be released from a youth prison by the time he’s 21. If he’d been tried and convicted as an adult, the child could have faced life in prison with parole eligibility after 20 years.
According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “Floyd held a hearing June 20 and later found that the boy is emotionally mature enough to be transferred to adult court. But he has no previous convictions in juvenile court and Floyd believes there is still enough time before he turns 18 for the juvenile system to rehabilitate him.”
While Ohio law left the final decision in the hands of a judge, in many other states O’Malley would have been free to prosecute the child in adult court without input from or review by a court. In those jurisdictions, it is left up to the prosecutor to determine whether to initiate a case against a child in juvenile court or in adult criminal court (by way of a method called “direct file”).
“With direct file, there’s no opportunity for it to go before a judge to make that very important decision on whether or not a child should be prosecuted as an adult,” said Nisha Ajmani, a lawyer and program manager at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in a 2016 Atlantic article that looked at efforts in California to end the practice.
Ajmani said a judge should be part of the of the process because prosecutors, among other things, may be more focused on appearing “tough on crime” rather than fully exploring a juvenile’s maturity and capacity for rehabilitation.
Florida’s direct file practice has generated the most attention, with the Marshall Project saying that the state is the worst in the nation when it comes to prosecuting children as adults. Human Rights Watch has reported that during a five-year period, over 12,000 children were sent to Florida’s adult courts. Notably, Human Rights Watch determined that “more than 60 percent of the juveniles Florida transferred to adult court during this period were charged with nonviolent felonies. Only 2.7 percent were prosecuted for murder.”
According to HRW’s report, there is also statistical evidence that children of color in Florida were more likely to be direct filed than white juveniles: “Our analysis reveals that black boys make up 27.2 percent of children received by the juvenile justice system (arrested and initially sent for processing to the Department of Juvenile Justice), but account for 51.4 percent of transfers to the adult system. White boys make up 28 percent of children received by the juvenile justice system, but account for only 24.4 percent of transfers.”
Heavy criticism of direct filing led both California and Vermont to recently abandon the practice in their states. Reform efforts in Florida, however, died in the legislature this past spring.