By Andrew Pantazi
Across Florida, children were less likely last year to be prosecuted as adults than in years past, according to new data released by the Department of Juvenile Justice. Jacksonville and Gainesville had the state’s sharpest declines, with rates dropping to nearly half the previous year’s.
Leading up to 2016’s state attorney election in Jacksonville, then-candidate Melissa Nelson made juvenile-justice reform a centerpiece of her campaign, pledging to change the way children are prosecuted. Nelson spoke often about her experience defending Cristian Fernandez, a 12-year-old charged as an adult in the death of his younger brother.
The data compares fiscal years, so it only includes the first six months of Nelson’s administration and the last six months of former State Attorney Angela Corey’s. Yet in that time frame, the rate of prosecuting children as adults fell by 43 percent.
Out of every 10,000 children living here, the Fourth Judicial Circuit charged 4.3 as an adult, compared to 7.5 a year earlier. The decline was even starker in Gainesville’s 8th Judicial Circuit, where the rate fell from 10.5 to 5.1.
Across Florida, 7.7 out of every 10,000 children were charged as adults last year, and 9 out of every 10,000 the year before.
“Anything that helps children not be stigmatized by the criminal justice system is good,” said Bob Dillinger, president of the Florida Public Defenders Association and the public defender in the Sixth Judicial Circuit in Pinellas County. “There is a culture change coming about who really should be direct filed [as an adult] and who shouldn’t.”