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Law Students Seek Constitutional Change to Juvenile Justice in Florida

Children in Prison Project

A quartet of Tallahassee law students has been advocating two changes to Florida’s Constitution. The Constitution Revision Commission is now weighing those among hundreds of other public proposals.

Credit Children in Prison Project

One of the students on the advocacy team is Daniel Clibbon. He credited Paolo Annino, Professor of Law at Florida State University and co-director of the Public Interest Law Center, for the whole idea.

“He’s kind of the driving force behind everything that we do,” Clibbon smiled.

One of Clibbon’s 3 colleagues on this particular project is Caitlyn Kio. She noted a main focus of the Public Interest Law Center and Professor Annino is on Florida’s approach to juvenile justice.

“That’s why it’s specifically geared at juvenile justice what we’re doing because we’re part of the Children in Prison Project so he suggested the topics of them, but we’ve sort of run with it since then,” she said.

Clibbon explained the actual content of the two proposals.

“One of them is solitary confinement for juveniles,” he began. “We’re trying to put it in our constitution to put pretty hard limits on that. And then our other one is trying children as adults in court, which is commonly referred to as a ‘transfer’; a child is transferred to adult court.”

There are many reasons to change these, said Kio, mostly because of the detrimental effects they have on the kids subjected to them.

“There’s negative impacts on mental health from both of those. Solitary confinement itself causes a lot of harm to kids who are in solitary confinement at any point are at a higher risk of mental health issues and suicide. And then transfers also have negative impacts on children. When kids are transferred to the adult criminal system, they’re forever treated as adults by the system so if later on they get caught jaywalking or taking a pack of gum, they’ll be prosecuted in an adult court for that.”

Now, Clibbon said it’s now not only the quartet of FSU law students who are pushing the proposals.

“There’s a period proposals before, which we entered, but that period has ended and you need a commissioner to essentially adopt your proposal. And we had two commissioners: Commissioner Robert Martinez and Hank Coxe adopted one of our proposals each,” he explained.

Commissioner Martínez is a widely recognized litigation attorney and a partner at Colson Hicks Eidson. Commissioner Coxe is a Jacksonville-based attorney who specializes in federal and state criminal matters and is a former president of The Florida Bar. Still, student team member Caitlyn Kio insisted their work is not yet done.

“The four of us – it’s Daniel and I and two other students, Ashley (Hamill)and Brenda (Czekanski) – we’ve been doing a ton of trying to reach out to the media. Some op-eds have been written and we’re looking at trying to get those published and Commissioner Coxe has asked us to be prepared to present on the transfer amendment in January and I think we’ll have another committee meeting on the confinement amendment in January also.”

That would certainly seem like reason for optimism. All Coxe and Martinez will have to do is convince 20 more of the 37 Constitution Revision commissioners to go along with them. So did Kio and Clibbon think there’s a high liklihood their proposals might make it onto the 2018 ballot?

“I think it’s pretty low,” they both laughed.

Mainly, speculated Clibbon, because of all the other issues vying for commissioners’ approval. That and the fact the more amendments that make it onto the ballot, the diminishing chance that any of them will get the sixty percent voter approval needed for passage. Still, Clibbon believed changing the way Florida charges, tries and incarcerates so many of its youngest offenders is the right thing to do.

“We have these stories where the system just fails these kids in extraordinary ways and if there’s a way to keep that from happening, I don’t know why we wouldn’t want to do that,” he said.

So in the event the constitutional approach fails, Clibbon insisted his team will then shift the campaign to the legislature. Even though the issue has failed there at least once before, perhaps there will be a more receptive audience next time.

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