1: Tried as adults,
Published Sunday, March 18, 2001
they find trouble instead of help and rehabilitation
First in a two part-series
GREENE AND GEOFF DOUGHERTY
Florida's get-tough campaign on violent
teens is instead targeting young thieves and drug dealers, a Herald
investigation has found. Many of them end up in prisons fraught with
abuse, only to be released as more refined criminals.
The high-profile prosecutions of Lionel
Tate and Nathaniel Brazill, 14-year-old South Florida boys facing life in
prison for murder, have dramatized Florida's role in the national movement
to punish juveniles as if they were adults.
Outraged by violent teen crime, Florida has
some of the toughest laws in the nation. Sixteen-year-olds can be
prosecuted as adults for any felony. Children as young as 14 can be sent
to the adult prison system for smash-and-grab burglary, aggravated assault
As a result, one in
13 Florida prison inmates are doing time for a crime committed as a youth.
But the crackdown has flaws at every step.
A Herald review of millions of court and prison records dating to 1995
Tourist murders by young
felons helped spur legislators to pass laws bumping juvenile crimes to
adult courts. But homicides comprise just two of
every 100 juvenile adult court convictions. Less-serious burglaries, drug
charges and thefts account for the majority.
Florida's laws were created amid furor over a juvenile system that failed
to control teens with long criminal pasts. But nearly half the juveniles
prosecuted under Florida's crackdown had one or no prior felony
Forty percent of juveniles tried in
adult court get probation. Critics say this leads to more problems.
Lacking punishment or rehabilitation, juveniles on probation often get in
One in three break the rules of their
release, landing them in prison for crimes the sentencing judge didn't
initially think warranted time behind bars.
When juveniles do go to state prison,
they are more likely to be assaulted than adult convicts , The Herald
found. At Hillsborough Correctional Institution, a prison for juveniles
and young adults, one teen was scalded in the face with boiling water.
Another was blinded in one eye after a convict pummeled him with a lock
stuffed in a sock.
At Martin Correctional Institution, an adult
prison in Indiantown, a seasoned convict choked the life from a Broward
teen four years ago. After the murder of Michael Myers, an inmate told
investigators how older convicts prey on the young: ``Michael was young,
and a lot of the other inmates . . . was trying to make him his
Young convicts leaving adult prison are
more likely to continue with crime than juveniles accused of similar
crimes leaving juvenile programs, studies by The Herald and two sets of
Prosecutors across Florida strongly
challenge the studies, saying that, if anything, the results show they
picked the children with the greatest penchant for trouble.
But for Florida's fight against teen crime,
the studies carry significance. Each of them matched children in the two
systems -- adult court and juvenile court -- by their current charges,
prior records and key demographics: in other words, similar youngsters,
charged with similar crimes and with similar criminal pasts, routed to
The conclusion: Children sent to juvenile
programs are more likely to stay out of trouble than those routed to
This all has big implications. If
Florida fails to turn around its most unruly children, that means more
crime victims ahead.
``We're giving up on too many of these kids
who don't profile as the aggressive violent offender,'' said Shay Bilchik,
director of the Child Welfare League of America, a children's advocacy
Prosecutors, criminal judges, police and
crime victims view Florida's aggressive approach differently. They say
last decade's runaway juvenile crime required serious action.
New laws in 1970s responded to
rampant juvenile crime
Florida's crusade began in 1978, when state
legislators moved to stem raging juvenile crime with new laws that gave
prosecutors power to try 16- and 17-year-olds in adult court. Previously,
those cases stayed in the juvenile courts, where authorities had control
over teens typically to 18, though longer in special cases.
``In a perfect world, we would not have to
pass this legislation. But we no longer have the Ozzie and Harriett
homes,'' said Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, who last year
sponsored another lockup law requiring hard time for juvenile gun crimes
even as juvenile crime was dipping.
``We have such a group of hardened kids out
there,'' she said. ``We can't have little old ladies out there fearing the
teenage kids. . . . We're not going to just slap you on the
Legislators added muscle to the laws in the
1990s on the heels of notorious tourist killings.
In September 1993 came the ``shots heard
around the state,'' as a Herald headline described a tourist murder at a
rest stop in the piney corridor of I-10 near Monticello. Four teens were
held, in the ninth tourist slaying in Florida since the previous fall. One
culprit had 30 prior arrests, another, 26. The teens had ambushed a couple
napping in their rental car, killing the man and wounding his companion.
After the next legislative session, prosecutors
had the power to charge 14-year-olds in adult court for serious crimes --
bypassing the juvenile court system.
It's called ``direct
file,'' a power that affords prosecutors wide discretion. The
standard, under law: ``In the state attorney's judgment and discretion the
public interest requires that adult sanctions be considered.''
Other times, prosecutors must file in adult
court: 16- and 17-year-olds charged with their second violent crime
against a person, children as young as 14 who have three prior felony
adjudications, and all carjackings resulting in serious injury.
``Two months after we increased direct
file, we started to see a drop'' in juvenile crime, said Leon Botkin,
Miami-Dade's juvenile division chief, whose office wall is covered with
yellowed newspaper clippings of violent teen crimes.
Advocates say the laws deter would-be
delinquents and scare others to go straight. They also say children in
prison do have long records, that convictions alone don't reflect all
Nine of 10 juveniles
in prison had been arrested for violent crimes, and each averaged 16 total
charges, the Department of Corrections said in a 1999 study. ``This
data clearly shows that the courts are sending juveniles to prison who
have chronic and serious prior criminal records,'' Department of
Corrections Secretary Michael Moore wrote to The Herald. He declined to be
Significantly, however, the
Corrections study looked at arrests, not convictions. It
also examined counts, not cases -- a key distinction. If a juvenile
burglarized a home, mangling the front door on the way in, and then broke
into a car on the way out, the Corrections study would log three crimes.
Backed by the expanded powers, Florida
had locked up one of every nine juvenile inmates in prison in the United
States by 1997, according to a survey of a majority of states.
Prosecutions have dipped with teen crime since a peak in 1995, but Florida
remains a national leader.
TEEN FITS STATE
Prosecuted for burglary, he ended up in
Miami's Joseph Tejera is one of Florida's
teen inmates, and he fits the state profile perfectly.
Tejera was prosecuted for burglary, the
most common juvenile adult court conviction, nearly one in four cases.
Robberies comprise an additional 18 percent and drug charges, 17 percent.
His prior rap sheet included no
violence, just misdemeanor shoplifting. That's also typical. A third of
Florida teens prosecuted in adult court between 1995 and 1999 had no prior
felony convictions. Nearly half had no more than one.
He was never sent to a juvenile
program offering 24-hour supervision and therapy. Again, it's typical. In
the majority of cases, teens were sent to adult court without a trip to
the most intensive juvenile programs, such as locked facilities.
Like many peers, he landed in prison
after violating the terms of his release. He was originally given
community control, a type of supervision similar to house arrest, and
probation. He went to prison after missing 8 p.m. curfews -- twice.
Tejera grew up with a single mother working
as a waitress to raise three boys. ``I hate to ask my mom for money,'' he
said from prison on a scorching day, explaining his motive to steal. ``She
had bills to pay.''
At 16 in 1999, he took jewelry, Nintendo
video equipment, an autographed football, cassettes and candy in a Miami
``He finds himself in adult court because
he and other kids made a stupid mistake and wanted to steal a Nintendo
set. They saw the Dan Marino football; they thought that would be nice to
have, too,'' said David Tarlow, his appointed lawyer.
``No employer wants to hire a young person
who has adult criminal charges,'' he added. ``I'm not trying to minimize
what the kid did, but at the same point in time, why do we have a juvenile
system? Do we want to rehabilitate them or make them part of the system?''
Tejera became part of the system largely
because the burglary was at night with the victim asleep. ``I consider a
nighttime burglary to be much more serious. After 5 p.m., there's more
chance to run into someone,'' Miami-Dade's Botkin said.
``When you violate somebody's home, you
show them in a very emotional way how unsafe they really are,'' said Brad
King, president of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association.
Locked up, the five-foot-five, 135-pound
inmate earned a sterling disciplinary record. But he's also been in five
fights. ``They'll come up to me and test me. And that's when you've got to
fight. If you let them pick on you, that's when they really abuse you,''
he said, a cracked tooth the remnant of one scuffle. ``In prison, it's all
Recently, he was transferred to a
Miami-Dade work release prison, closer to family in Little Havana. Now 18,
he'll be out this year, but his mother, Maria, fears for his future as an
GIRL ROAMED THE
`I was just taking stuff to help me
eat,' she says
Born to a father now serving life in prison
for sex crimes against minors, and a mother arrested for theft and drunk
driving, Rebekah Homerston ran to the streets around Fort Lauderdale at
13. She found her own crimes: burglary, auto theft.
``I was just taking stuff to help me eat
and find places to sleep,'' she said from her new home, Lowell
Correctional Institution Women's Unit.
She went to prison before serving time in
the most intensive juvenile programs -- programs that a counselor believes
could have gotten her out of a bad home and turned her around.
The juvenile system operates like a ladder.
Children with the most serious crimes climb to the most intensive
Level 2 includes day treatment programs,
runaway shelters, special schools. Level 4 is for ``low-risk'' teens who
live at treatment centers for less than six months. Level 6 includes six-
to nine-month stays at halfway houses and boot camps. At Levels 8 to 10,
teens are locked up for one to three years.
Homerston had been in a Level 2 program --
barely up the rungs -- before her journey to state prison.
At 14, she went to PACE Center for Girls, a
school for at-risk females in Fort Lauderdale. Suddenly, this runaway was
scoring A's and B's on report cards. ``She had an incredible amount of
potential,'' said PACE program director Shelly Servidio.
PACE is a daytime school, not an overnight
program that forces children off the streets. Soon, Homerston ran away
from home again and into crime. In Wilton Manors in 1997, she was charged
with criminal mischief and burglary after police said she and three others
vandalized the city's recreation center, causing $4,200 in damage.
At 15, she was prosecuted as an adult and
got a two-year prison term, part in boot camp. ``I don't see how that's
going to help Rebekah,'' Servidio said.
``She was really young at the time, and she
had a lot of factors against her. Her dad was already in prison. She
needed intervention in order to make better decisions. I don't think the
prison system is set up to really try to accommodate that.''
It didn't. Released from Lowell
Correctional, she was caught snatching a shirt in the Keys when she was
four months shy of 17. She's now back in prison for 3 1/2 years, again
showing potential, earning her GED just before her 18th birthday,
enrolling in computer courses and keeping a good disciplinary record.
She said she's also seen prison's rough
side. ``In our dorm, I've seen a lot of girls slit their wrists. All of
the fighting and stuff, it really bothers me. Sometimes, I wish I could
have my own cell or my own school. . . . It's hard to be good in
Prosecutors say her case posed difficult
questions. She had six cases and ran with gang members, even if she wasn't
one. Yet none of her crimes were violent, she had a troubled home life,
and she showed promise.
``There's no crystal ball,'' said Maria
Schneider, assistant state attorney in charge of Broward's juvenile unit,
who did not personally handle the case but reviewed the file after a
``This young lady's priors involved
basically the same type of behavior over and over again. I think someone
down the line made the decision that there was nothing we were going to be
able to do to dissuade this child from this behavior. Therefore, we went
Said Schneider: ``The toughest thing I do
is to make that decision when it comes to a child. How do you know when
enough is enough? I don't take that lightly. I have three of my own.''
The office drew attention recently for
prosecuting Lionel Tate, 12 at the time of the incident, for murder in the
death of playmate Tiffany Eunick, 6. Tate's defense team said he was
imitating TV wrestlers when he body-slammed the girl. A Broward judge
sentenced the boy to life in prison, but Broward prosecutors said they'll
ask the governor to reduce the term.
Another boy accused of murder, Nathaniel
Brazill, has yet to go to trial in the shooting death of Lake Worth
teacher Barry Grunow last year. On Thursday in Palatka, Fla., 15-year-old
John Silva was sentenced to life in prison for strangling a younger
10 YEARS IN PRISON
Teen and an adult criminal committed an
First-time felon Derrick Iverson is serving
10 years in adult prison on three counts of armed robbery after he and an
adult criminal held up a Texaco gas station in Fort Lauderdale in 1999. He
was 16, a new father and football player.
Imprisoned at 17, he now studies law books
and takes adult education classes, trying to reform in a prison housing
adult killers. ``If you don't care about yourself, your life is just over
in here,'' he tells his first visitors in three months.
He speaks from Madison Correctional, east
of Tallahassee, where posters on the wall bear a message that rings true:
Use a gun, and you're done. 10-20-LIFE. During a crime, pull a gun -- 10
years. It's another law aimed at putting away young felons, such as
Authorities say the case was clear-cut.
Both robbers had guns and were caught on tape in a crime that so shook the
victims that the cashier cried afterward. Iverson confessed. He got $52.
``That's a grown-up decision, and I don't
apologize at all for making the decision to send him to adult court,''
said Alex Urruela, senior supervisor in Broward's juvenile unit.
Yet cashier Paul Ridley believes Iverson's
sentence is harsh. He said the adult, not the teen, was the aggressor,
putting a gun to his head. Once a prison employee himself, Ridley fears
that a long time behind bars may only train Iverson to be a better
criminal. Prosecutors say other victims agreed with the sentence.
``He's going to have to be a man the first
day,'' Ridley said. ``He shouldn't be doing that much time. Give him house
arrest. Send him to jail for two years. At least he can graduate from
school and make himself better. At 27, he's going to be coming out a lot
TROUBLE FOR YOUNG
Youth attacked by inmates, and it cost him an eye
Case studies show how young felons face
trouble inside prison -- and afterward.
Tampa's Sedrick Burden, victim of a brutal
prison assault, is an example.
He came into the adult system at 17. He had
been on juvenile probation for previous theft charges and was far from
exhausting rehabilitation programs when he was charged as an adult for
possession of marijuana and cocaine with intent to sell. When he violated
probation at 18 with a new drug case, a judge sent him to prison.
At Hillsborough Correctional Institution in
1999, he was pummeled with a lock stuffed in a sock over a trifling turf
dispute -- because he's from Tampa, his assailants from across the state.
``They put his whole eye out,'' said his
father, William Webb. ``They're supposed to be able to watch them. How can
they let this happen?''
Released at 19 last year, he finds everyday
diversions difficult. ``I can't catch a baseball, because it might hit
me,'' he said from his family's working-class neighborhood. ``I get real
He can't hold jobs either. An ex-convict
without prospects, he was arrested on marijuana charges again twice
recently and may be headed back to prison.
His case is not unique.
The Herald conducted a computer analysis
matching children sent to Florida's adult prison system with teens with
similar records, age and race routed to juvenile programs. The result:
Sending a juvenile to prison increases by 35 percent the odds he'll
re-offend within a year of release.
The finding echoes an earlier Florida study
looking at 2,738 pairs of juveniles in the 1980s with similar records, one
sent to adult court, one not. Thirty percent in the adult system committed
crimes after release, compared with 19 percent in the other group.
``When they come out, and they do come out,
they may be more of a threat to society,'' said Donna Bishop, a
Northeastern University criminal justice professor who coauthored the
A study of New York and New Jersey cases
came to a similar result. ``We took this as evidence that there was no
payoff prosecuting adolescents as adults,'' said Columbia University
professor Jeffrey Fagan, the author.
Prosecutors contend that totally different
systems can't be compared, and they say the Florida study didn't capture
nuances that make or break filing decisions. It looked at children charged
with burglary, for instance, but wouldn't know whether one was at night
with victims at home, the other in the day.
If anything, they say, the results show
they picked the most troubled teens for prosecution.
Florida lawmakers show no sign of turning
``Do I think we're going to ratchet back
what we passed in the Legislature as the result of these studies? I would
say, very unlikely,'' said Sen. Brown-Waite. ``The adult public, the
senior citizens, are very happy overall with what we've done.''