JUVENILE CRIMINAL LAW
I began my legal career in the Juvenile Division of the Miami-Dade County Public Defender’s Office in 1982. In my years as an Assistant Public Defender and, afterwards, in private practice, I have tried more than 100 juvenile cases to verdict. It is much easier to conduct a juvenile trial than a regular criminal case, because juvenile have no Constitutional right to a jury trial, and, accordingly, juvenile cases are tried by a judge, as opposed to a jury.
In Florida, however, many 16 and 17 year-olds are tried in the adult courts under the “direct file” system. Statistics show Florida leads the nation in trying juvenile cases in the regular adult criminal courts. While juveniles gain all the Constitutional rights available to adults when they are tried as an adult, they also are subject to adult penalties, which can be quite draconian in Florida.
Juvenile defendants are different than the typical adult criminal defendant. My experience with juvenile defendants has given me the insight necessary to provide adequate representation to these special defendants. There are several legal loopholes available to juvenile defendants that I have used to help them avoid harsh adult sentencing. For instance, a judge may still impose juvenile sanctions on a defendant in the adult system if the judge determines such sanctions are appropriate. A judge may also impose Youthful Offender sentences on juveniles in adult court, even for some of the most serious felony charges.
One of the recent developments in juvenile law concerns life sentences for defendants who were under the age of 18 at the time the offenses in question were committed. The United States Supreme Court—in its recent decisions of Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. (2012), and Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010)—found life sentences to be unconstitutional for juvenile defendants in all but the most extreme cases. I was in the vanguard of this movement with a case in California (People v. Hwang) and several cases in Florida. In all these cases, I succeeded in getting my clients’ prior life sentences set aside and achieved non-life sentences after resentencing hearings.
Juvenile cases require a different approach from the criminal defense attorney. We must still investigate the facts of a case but must also investigate our client’s background, including psychological, medical, and school records. In some juvenile cases, we use the services of psychologists and other counselors to present these facts to the sentencing judge. With juvenile cases, the goal is not only to obtain the best result for the client but also to provide help to the juvenile defendant so he or she can move on to a productive future and put their youthful indiscretions behind. The Supreme Court encouraged this approach to juvenile sentencings in Miller and Graham, and, indeed, rehabilitation has always been the focus of the juvenile court system.
I enjoy doing juvenile cases and am proud of the results of my representation. My goal in representing a juvenile is to not only get my client through the sometimes intimidating court process but also assist my client’s family as well. I feel I can actually make a difference in my juvenile client’s life if I provide good representation to him or her. One juvenile client I was particularly proud of was Hall of Fame football player Derrick Thomas who I represented in the juvenile courts while I was still working in the Public Defender’s Office. We were able to get Mr. Thomas into one of the best juvenile court programs available while keeping him from being prosecuted in adult court. He made the best of the opportunity and turned his life around, becoming one of the all-time great linebackers before his early and tragic death in a car crash in 2000.