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ACLU Promoting Criminal Justice Reforms For Upcoming Legislative Session

Roberto Roldan
WUSF Public Media
Michelle Morton of ACLU Florida led a town hall on juvenile justice reform on Saturday at the Seminole Heights library branch.

Florida is one of only three states that allows prosecutors to have the only say if a juvenile suspect is tried as an adult.

The American Civil Liberties Union, a part of the "No Place for a Child" coalition, is holding town halls about this practice and other juvenile justice reforms being considered in the 2018 Florida Legislative session that starts next month.

Under current Florida law, even judges are unable to send a case to juvenile court once a child or teenager has been charged as an adult, said Michelle Morton, the juvenile justice policy coordinator with ACLU Florida. Supporters of the current system say that putting the decision in the prosecutor's hands is efficient and is tough on crime.

Morton told residents at a town hall Saturday in Tampa that more minors are sent to adult jail in Florida than anywhere else in the United States. She said doing so can restrict access to education and rehabilitation children would otherwise get in a juvenile facility.

"An education (for children) is something that is guaranteed by law," Morton said. "So it's really leaving a lot of power in the hands of just one individual and no real recourse for checks and balances." 

Saturday's forum also addressed local laws that allow officers to issue civil citations for a first-time misdemeanor. Not every county in Florida allows for this practice and, when it does, issuing a civil citation instead of an arrest is a decision left up to the officer. 

"Whenever you have such a hodgepodge of approaches, justice is going to vary so much by location," Morton said. "I think as a community we need to ask ourselves 'Why is that right? Why, in one area, is it appropriate for a child to be arrested for marijuana possession, but if he was one county over he would be issued a civil citation?' "

Tampa resident Dawn Traux, who oversees drama programs for at-risk youth, pleaded with Morton to tell her how to be a part of promoting the juvenile justice reforms laid out in the town hall.

"Don't give me any more research," Traux said. "I'm frustrated. Give me a job."

In response, Morton encouraged her to focus on two bills fthat will be discussed by Florida legislators in the session that starts Jan. 9 

SB 644, sponsored by Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Ocoee, would create uniform and mandatory guidelines for issuing civil citations to minors instead of arrest. SB 936, sponsored by Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach, would make it more difficult to charge juveniles as adults except in the most severe crimes.

ACLU Florida will host another community forum on criminal justice reform Monday (Dec. 11) at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. recreation complex, in Tampa beginning at 6:30 p.m.