The trend of current criminal law acknowledges that whenever possible children charged with crime should not be treated as adults. The Florida Bar has been pushing for judges rather than prosecutors to determine when a child should be treated as an adult.
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In Florida, juveniles whom prosecutors have charged as adults or young adults up to the age of twenty-two may be granted Youthful Offender status for a second chance. This may happen even over the objection of the State Attorney’s Office if a judge can be persuaded with effective arguments to make a finding that a child or young adult qualifies under the statute.
A young person who pleads guilty under the Youthful Offender Statute may preempt the application of draconian sentencing laws in the following ways:
First, any harsh drug minimum mandatory sentences that would normally be triggered by conviction of a significant drug offense may be avoided. For example, in drug trafficking cases for drugs such as marijuana, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine or oxycodone the outrageous long term sentences typically of three, ten, fifteen and twenty-five years of prison may be avoided.
Second, a young person charged with various firearm counts may be able to avoid specified minimum mandatory sentencing which a judge would otherwise not be able to sentence below. For example, in a case of possession of a sawed-off shotgun, a young defendant could avoid a minimum mandatory sentence of three years on the firearm count.
Third, in cases of sexual battery, lewd and lascivious conduct or sexual assault, mandatory sex offender probation conditions can be avoided under the Youthful Offender statute. Many times young people are charged as adults even when the actual sexual conduct was consensual. For example, when a High School senior has consensual sexual relations with a freshman whose age falls just shy of recently amended Florida Romeo and Juliet statutes. Also, in a recent article Richard Sanders makes a compelling argument that imposing mandatory sex offender probation conditions is not required under the Youthful Offender Statute despite some poorly reasoned case law to the contrary.
Finally, the large fines typically imposed in significant criminal cases can also be avoided under the Florida Youthful Offender Statute if the presiding judge is persuaded that the young offender neither has the means nor ability to pay or that a fine would be detrimental to becoming a productive citizen in the future.
Young people perceive the passage of time differently than adults and imposing any jail on a young person is a much harsher punishment in actual deprivation than a similar punishment to an adult. Further, as psychiatrists have long noted and as the U.S. Supreme Court has recently come to realize, the brain functioning properties of children may them more likely to do foolish things, to not think thru things as an adult would and to not be as responsible as an adult might be.
Under Chapter 958 of the Florida Statutes the Court merely needs to make a finding that a qualifying defendant would benefit from a set of sanctions which are likely to improve his or her “… chances of correction and successful return to the community.” This, of course, should be the aim of every judge in every criminal case. Yet too often our best judges have their decision making tied by legal restrictions and are kept from doing their most important job, which is constructing a sentence that punishes as little as possible while still deterring crime. The goal of a good judge is to sentence is such a way that a defendant does not become a ward of the state, but instead becomes a productive, law-abiding citizen.