A 17-year-old burglary suspect with mental health problems was found hanging in his cell at the Broward County jail early Sunday morning, several sources have confirmed for the Miami Herald.
The teenager was transported to Broward General Hospital, but his condition was unknown, the sources said.
Nadine Girault, the chief assistant public defender of the juvenile division, said the 17-year-old was in the main jail in Fort Lauderdale, a maximum security facility attached to the county courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, when he was found in his cell, hanging about 3 a.m. He was not in the county’s juvenile detention facility, she said, because the state attorney’s office filed the charges against him as an adult, a controversial and common practice across Florida.
Girault said the teenager had been charged with grand theft of a firearm, but there’s no indication that he used or threatened to use the weapon that he is charged with stealing.
“They file those charges in adult court and that’s a decision that’s made by the state attorney, even with mentally ill children, which is absurd,’’ Girault said.
Broward State Attorney Michael Satz, who is serving his last term as state attorney, has long been criticized for his practice of direct filing criminal charges against juveniles in adult court. The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice reported that Satz’s office, between 2015-2018, direct-filed charges against more black children than those of other races. In 2015-2016, the Broward state attorney direct-filed 52 children, and of those youths, 32 (62 percent) were black, 13 (25 percent) were white, and 7 (13 percent) were Hispanic.
Direct filing allows prosecutors to send arrested juveniles to adult court, usually as part of a plea deal in which a teen is pressured to accept incarceration in a juvenile facility to resolve their case. It usually takes place without a court hearing or an airing of the evidence. The process gives prosecutors — instead of juvenile judges — unbridled discretion to automatically charge 16- and 17-year-olds with felonies as adults.
The Miami New Times reported last month that Broward County’s chief public defender, Howard Finkelstein, and the county’s chief assistant public defender, Gordon Weekes, wrote a letter to Satz asserting he had failed to adopt common sense criminal justice reforms, including for juvenile offenders.
Among their complaints: that Satz has not formed a panel of experts to review the direct-filing process for juveniles.
Satz is not alone. The state of Florida sends more juveniles through the adult court system any other state in the country. Over 60 percent of the more than 12,000 juvenile suspects moved to the Florida adult-court system in the past five years were charged with nonviolent felonies.
A 2014 Human Rights Watch report on direct filing suggests that Florida should end the practice and adopt the fairer alternative of judges ruling on juvenile-to-adult transfers. Proponents of direct filing say it creates efficiency and sets an example of being tough on crime. But opponents say juveniles who are charged as adults enter a criminal justice system that treats them more harshly, with little change of rehabilitation, often leading them to a lifelong cycle of crime and incarceration.