Kids first

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We're No. 1! A study by the Palm Beach Post says Florida leads the nation in trying and incarcerating children in adult facilities. We've got one-third of all children tried as adults and 10 percent of all the juveniles housed in adult prisons.

Blame the state's Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 1994, which gave prosecutors, rather than judges, the right to decide which kids should be treated as adults. It also allowed a child of any age to be sent to an adult prison if his or her criminal record merits it. Our own U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Longwood) is pushing a bill that would make federal law mirror Florida law. Thoughtful observers contend that such "get tough" legislation causes more problems than it solves, but McCollum is unmoved: "They've gone through the process before and they think nothing about murder or rape," McCollum told the newspaper.

Rape and murder are indeed the farthest thing from the minds of the vast majority of children sent to adult court in Florida, according to statistics compiled by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. Of the 4,198 children sent to adult court on felony charges last year, the largest single category of crime, comprising 996 cases and nearly a quarter of all felonies, was burglary. No. 2: "felony non-marijuana drug" cases, totalling 626. Murder, attempted murder and sexual battery cases totaled 278.

But felonies are not the only offenses for which kids get sent to adult court. Last year, 379 kids were sent for misdemeanors. More kids (86) were tried in adult court for petty larceny and shoplifting than for assault and battery (85). Thirty-three were up for trespassing; 40 were for pot possession. Twenty-nine kids sent to adult court faced, as their most serious charge, "resisting arrest without violence." That's copspeak for: He ran.

"I think that person, whatever his age, has to be removed from society," says McCollum. "I don't have any qualms about it."

Since the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 1994, 27 kids under the age of 13 have been sent to adult court in Florida. Eight of them were under 10.

Florida's juvenile justice system is harder on African-Americans than whites, and Orange County's is tougher still. Although only 38 percent of the 107,000 Florida youths referred to the juvenile justice system last year were black, 55 percent of those transferred to adult court were black. In Orange County, the numbers are 46 percent and 66 percent, respectively.

Hopefully, sending children to adult court is a trend that has peaked in Florida, with numbers that are now on the decline both statewide and in Orange County. Only about 3.4 percent of all the cases referred to juvenile authorities in Orange County were sent to adult court last year. That's a lower percentage than in the state as a whole. Still, seven Orange County kids went to adult court last year for marijuana misdemeanors. One was even sent up for trespassing.

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