It was the kind of reckless decision high-school boys sometimes make when left to their own devices. In May 2009, four teens entered an uninhabited house in a suburb of Tampa, Fla., and ransacked it. They overturned furniture, threw paint on the walls, smashed food jars on the floor, and stole game consoles, DVDs and a computer. Within weeks, they were arrested. All four boys faced the same charges: burglary and theft.
Two of the boys have left the episode far behind them. They were charged as juveniles and put on probation; they didn’t spend a day in prison. One — who lived down the street from the vandalized house and allegedly brought the group there — is white, the other Hispanic. The other two boys, however, are serving four-year sentences for the same crime. They were 16 and 17 when they were arrested, but were charged as adults. Neither had any priors. Both are Hispanic.
The case highlights what child-advocates say is an arbitrary, unfair, and often racist system — one in which prosecutors can decide whether to bring adult charges against a kid without a hearing or any oversight from a judge.
“For 16 and 17 year olds… there is no criteria that the prosecutor is required to consider” to charge a juvenile with a felony as an adult in Florida, said Tania Galloni, managing attorney for the Florida office of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is lobbying to change the law. “The prosecutor doesn’t have to answer to anybody. He doesn’t have to explain his or her decision, and nobody, not even a judge, can look at it and disagree.”
Every state in the country has some legal avenue to charge a juvenile as an adult. Nationally, about 5,400 kids sleep in adult jails and prisons on any given night. The federal government estimates that about 250,000 kids are processed as adults each year in America.
But more kids are charged as adults in Florida than anywhere in the country. And about 98 percent of those cases are a result of prosecutors making that decision without a hearing — a process called “direct file.”
Florida is one of 15 states that allow prosecutors to transfer a juvenile case to adult criminal court without a judge’s sign-off. But its transfer law is harshest — kids as young as 14 can be sent to adult court, even for misdemeanor charges. Indeed, the majority of direct-filed cases in Florida are for nonviolent offenses, according to a 2014 Human Rights Watch analysis. The most common charge was burglary. Only 2.7 percent of all cases in 2012 and 2013 were for murder.
Direct file is also used far more often against kids of color. Boys who are Black make up 27 percent of the juvenile arrests in Florida, but 51 percent of the transfers to adult court, according to Human Rights Watch. The disparity is especially high for drug offenses and violent crimes other than murder, like armed robbery.
“Prosecutors sometimes want to bring adult charges to appear tough on crime,” Galloni said. “They think that they are going to teach the kid a lesson. They think that if you are 17, how different is that from being 18?” The problem, she said, “is that all of the research shows that trying kids in adult court actually leads to more recidivism.”
As opposed to the juvenile system, where offenses are, for the most part, kept confidential from the public, an adult conviction is automatically public record — making it difficult to find future work or apply for colleges. A felony conviction also bars anyone from joining the military, receiving federal financial aid, and in Florida, from voting, unless the governor and a clemency board restore the right.
Kids charged as adults are also subject to minimum mandatory sentences. In some states, no minors convicted of an adult charge can be held in juvenile facilities — even if they’re still under 18. Kids in adult jails and prisons are also more likely to be assaulted, raped and held in solitary confinement — for their own protection — than other inmates.
Susana Marino’s son, Miguel Rodriguez, was one of the boys who broke into the house in June 2009 in Wesley Chapel — a cookie-cutter suburb 10 miles north of Tampa.
Miguel is the middle of three brothers. He was a good student and gifted writer. When his older brother deployed to Iraq with the Marines, his mother says, Miguel stepped up to take care of the littlest brother. “Then Miguel became the oldest brother. The old brother in charge of taking care of Santiago,” Marino recalled. “Miguel never gave me any problems growing up.” He’d never been arrested until that summer. He had just turned 16.
The other three high school boys involved in the incident were arrested within weeks and taken to a juvenile jail before being released, but Miguel was away at camp. When he came home, he was taken to the adult county jail. He was charged with burglary and theft; his bail was set at $30,000, even though he was not found with any of the stolen property.
It took three days for Susana Marino to scrape together the money to bail her son out of jail. It was enough time for the 16-year-old boy to learn how horrible life on the inside could be.
Marino got a call from the jail saying that her son had been assaulted. When she got him out, Marino took an affidavit.
“I took my laptop and I start transcribing … I let Miguel tell the story from the day he got there,” she said. “I didn’t allow Miguel to see my face in horror. I acted like it wasn’t a big deal because I didn’t want him to stop telling me what he was telling me.”
Within hours of arriving at the jail Miguel told his mother he was ordered to fight another inmate and threatened with sexual assault if he didn’t. When he refused Miguel was forced to lick the communal toilet seat and drink water from it. The next three days in jail Miguel says he was beaten and abused by his fellow inmates. An officer found him crying in a cell after being hit in the face.
Marino eventually filed a complaint with the state Attorney’s office about the assaults, but she says no charges were brought against the officers who ran the jail.
Miguel’s court case dragged on for four years. He was able to finish high school, but had a difficult time starting college.
“The fact that we were in court every couple of months constantly until his case was decided, it took a toll on Miguel,” said Marino. “Miguel couldn’t concentrate, he felt like he always being watched. He felt like he couldn’t even have a normal life.”
Miguel started work as a busboy at a local restaurant after graduation. When his court date finally came, Miguel took a plea deal and was sentenced to four years of probation, ordered to pay restitution, and given house arrest for six months.
The terms were strict — Miguel could only leave home for work and to buy groceries. Shortly before his house arrest was set to end, Miguel missed curfew.
He was arrested again, and this time, Miguel was sentenced to four years in state prison. He started serving his time at age 20.
“I have invested my life in my children and my family,” said Marino. “I look at what we’re going through and it feels so surreal it feels like it’s happening to someone else other than me, but it’s really happening to me, to us.”
Carlos’s son, Ricardo, grew up with Miguel. Today, he also finds himself in prison on charges stemming from the burglary in Wesley Chapel. Carlos asked for us to withhold his last name because he shared personal medical information about his son.
Though he was 17, Ricardo was charged as an adult like Miguel. Ricardo also took a guilty plea and was eventually placed on probation for 54 months. In September 2013 he violated probation when he was caught by the police across the county line. Ricardo was sent to county jail for a two-month stay.
Ricardo did not do well in jail.
“He was behaving erratically … He was put in isolation. He was having a nervous breakdown,” said Carlos, adding that his son was given Haldol, a powerful antipsychotic medication. “He was like a zombie. I mean he was in really, really bad, I mean bad shape.”
After being released from jail and quickly coming off the medication, Carlos said his son’s behavior grew more erratic.
“He was kind of catatonic sometimes. He was tearing at walls, and laughing by himself,” said Carlos.
Ricardo was hospitalized and diagnosed with schizophrenia. Ricardo was eventually sent home with new medication.
But within two days of his hospital release, the police came knocking again.
Carlos said that during the weeks between his release from jail and hospitalization, Ricardo had driven off one night and walked into a stranger’s house where he drank a beer and left. No one was home, but Carlos said the residents later discovered the beer can and called the police. He was arrested and charged with two counts of burglary and trespassing an unoccupied structure.
A forensic psychologist who examined Ricardo in jail the second time recommended he be referred for inpatient psychological treatment. “This young man is grappling with the onset of a chronic and severe mental illness,” he wrote. “Treatment will aid him in better understanding his illness and learning about effective ways to manage/cope.”
The psychologist’s report specifies that Ricardo self-reports hearing voices prior to his incarceration, but there is evidence that solitary confinement can cause and exacerbate mental health issues.
Instead of being sent for inpatient treatment as recommended, Ricardo was sentenced to four years in prison.
“Everybody was shocked,” said Carlos. “When we heard the decision from the judge, our lawyers (because there were two lawyers) they were in shock. The doctor was right next to us, he was in shock.”
Today, Ricardo has weaned himself off medication. His father says he’s learned to manage his symptoms. Ricardo still has about two years left on his sentence.
“It felt unfair.”
Fusion spoke with Arleen Agosto, the owner of the vandalized house in Wesley Chapel. Agosto is a single mom. She was an Army nurse on active duty who was deployed to Virginia during the incident. She got a call that her house had been robbed after being deployed for about six months.
“When I walked into the house, I slipped on the oils and the paints and just everything that they had put all around the floors of the house,” said Agosto. “It was devastating.”
The house had to be stripped, and many of her family’s possessions – from toys to furniture and family photos — were lost. “It wasn’t just a house, it was a home, and they destroyed our home,” said Agosto. Agosto and her children were traumatized by the experience. For years she said she was anxious leaving the house and even going to sleep at night.
But despite the fact that the boys responsible for the damage were arrested and jailed, Agosto does not feel like justice was done in her case.
“I don’t think every child who vandalized the home was held accountable, and I don’t think it was equal in their punishments,” she said. “It felt unfair that the punishment wasn’t equal between all of them.”
Agosto pointed to the fact that the teenager who lived down the street from her home – and the only White boy involved – was given juvenile charges, despite the fact that, she says, he likely brought the group to the home.
Prison, said Agosto, does not seem like the right punishment either.
“I think they would have been more of an asset if they were out in the community doing community service, working at our VAs or helping single moms, doing something productive,” she said. “I don’t think we’re gonna get anything out of housing them in the jails.”
The prosecutor who originally charged the two teens as adults, Stacey Sumner, did not respond to our request for comment. The two other boys who were charged as juveniles did not speak with Fusion either. We are not naming them since they were minors given juvenile charges.
“He thinks that because of the system he’s going to go back to jail.”
The prison terms not only set Miguel and Ricardo’s lives adrift, but turned their families lives upside down as well. Susana Marino left Tampa with the rest of their family after more than two decades in the city. There were too many memories in Florida.
“We the families are the silent victims of the heavy weight of mass incarceration,” said Marino. “We are the faces that people don’t know exist. Behind every person behind bars there is a mother, a father, brothers, sisters, husbands and wives. … we go through a lot of shame. We got through a lot of feelings that we did something so awful.”
The family moved to Maryland. Maryland is a “ban the box” state — employers there cannot ask job applicants whether or not they’ve committed a felony. She’s hoping this will help her son Miguel restart life when he gets released.
Miguel has appealed for an early release. Susana tries to speak to her son in prison every day.
Carlos’s family lost their house because of the legal fees involved in the case. They are renting an apartment 10 miles away. The family is trying to make a plan for Ricardo when he’s released in 2016. Carlos wants to save enough to buy a house in the countryside, where they can raise animals and Ricardo can have a calm place to begin again.
“He thinks that because of the system he’s going to go back to jail. It could be a traffic stop or anything like that,” said Carlos. “I just keep assuring that him that he’s going to be here with us. That he’s going to be safe.”