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The Detriments of Direct File

Posted in 2016, Research & Policy Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Brittany Harwell, CFYJ Policy Fellow

Direct File occurs when a state has given the prosecutor power to file charges against a juvenile directly in adult criminal court. When a prosecutor exercises their discretion by choosing to file directly to adult criminal court they effectively override any juvenile or family court jurisdiction over a case. Direct file allows the prosecutor to hold all of the power in determining where to bring charges and what type of sentence a youth may receive if convicted.

Allowing the prosecutor to direct file is problematic because many prosecutors want to go for the most severe punishment and do not fully take into account important considerations for unique to each youth in the same way that a judge who could allow a transfer would consider.This lack of individual consideration is exacerbated by, “…wide variation among the States regarding criteria for direct file treatment, with some emphasizing offense categories, others the age of the juvenile involved, and still others the extent and seriousness of the juvenile’s offending history.” 

A majority of states do not allow their prosecutors direct file capabilities. This does not mean that a youth cannot be transferred to an adult court but rather that a judge considers several factors before allowing a transfer requested by the prosecutor. Youth can also be tried in adult criminal court through mandatory transfer. Mandatory transfer is not the same as direct file, mandatory transfer occurs when certain crimes have been deemed by statute to require a juvenile to be tried in adult court.

Some states that previously had a direct file systems chose to discontinue the practice because, “not only does direct file omit a disinterested arbiter for the child’s best interests, it plunges youngsters — and increasingly those charged with nonviolent crimes — into the much more punitive adult system.
Additionally, it has been found that direct file has had little effect on violent juvenile crime. If these direct file capabilities of the prosecutor fail to affect juvenile crime then why are they needed in the first place?

Currently, 16 states still allow direct file while the rest of the country has moved away from the practice. The states that continue to allow prosecutors to direct file youth into adult court are: CA, MI, DC, FL, LA, GA, PA, MT, NE, OK, VT, WY, VA, AZ, AK, CO. Of the state that currently allow direct transfer both California and Florida lawmakers are considering a move towards a more equitable juvenile justice system by ending direct file. California has made progress towards creating a more just juvenile justice system over the last few years, but moving away from direct file ability will ensure that judges, not prosecutors are making transfer decisions for youth after a consideration of several different factors. In 2014, 393 juveniles were transferred to adult court in California and 1607 juveniles were transferred to adult court in Florida. These numbers include both judicial waiver and prosecutorial direct file but. A recent study from Human Rights Watch found at 98 percent of the juveniles who end up in adult court are there do to “direct file” of a prosecutor.This means that over 1500 children in one year alone would benefit from direct file reform in Florida.