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Friday, Aug 22, 2014
Editorials

Juvenile court unnecessary

Published:

Hillsborough County State Attorney Mark Ober’s office charges more juveniles as adults than anywhere else in the state — 234 times last year — a statistic that has caused child advocates to back the establishment of a special juvenile court.

The assumption is that prosecutors are being too harsh and such a court would allow judges to be more discerning.

It’s a flawed premise, and we hope Chief Judge Manny Menendez rejects the idea.

With rare exceptions, the juveniles charged as adults either are accused of grave crimes or have been arrested numerous times.

Survey cases where juveniles have been charged as adults and you will find such crimes as robbery with a firearm, carjacking with a firearm, sexual battery, armed robbery, even murder.

These are not kids swiping video games.

They also are mostly older teens — many 17 years old — hardly children.

It’s true, juveniles, even older teens, lack the mental and emotional maturity of adults. Teenagers obviously know right from wrong, but they also are more impulsive and vulnerable to peer pressure and stress.

It is appropriate to recognize those differences and not treat juvenile criminals the same as adults, within reason.

But young criminals who have proved themselves a serious threat to society deserve serious consequences.

Charging them as adults provides far greater assurance they will be given the proper attention than recycling them through a juvenile system, where the appropriate programs or detention facilities are not always available.

An adult charge offers a judge many more options to ensure the appropriate sentence.

While in the juvenile system, the offender can be put under supervision only until, at most, 19 years old, depending on the time of the arrest.

But with adult charges, the defendant can be put in a youthful offender program that provides for more extensive supervision — up to six years. This better protects society while improving the offender’s chances of redemption. Punishment under the program may include up to a year’s incarceration, but a jail term is not mandated. A young defendant charged as an adult is not necessarily destined to end up behind bars.

Indeed, just because a youth is charged as an adult does not mean the judge has to impose an adult sentence.

The judge may determine the juvenile system’s sanctions are appropriate. The adult charges simply provide the judge more choices in how to deal with young people who have committed serious crimes.

Hillsborough prosecutors say more than a third of the juveniles charged as adults end up in the youthful offender program; about half are sentenced as adults and about 14 percent are sent to the juvenile system.

We know all too well what happens when young predators cycle through the criminal justice system without consequences, as occurred in the 1990s when crime ran rampant. When the criminal justice system toughened penalties, crime plummeted.

The current system allows judges plenty of flexibility to deal with juveniles charged as adults.

There is no justification for establishing a special juvenile court, particularly one aimed at minimizing penalties.

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