The Pensacola Bay Area League of Women Voters and its partners will continue their series of discussions of the School to Prison Pipeline, with a public forum at 5:30 p.m. Monday evening at Franco’s Italian Restaurant, 523 E. Gregory St.
This will be the second of three public forums aimed at raising awareness of the School to Prison Pipeline, which is a national problem whereby many children are being arrested for fairly minor offenses rather than disciplined at school.
“On this one, we’re going to zero in on what happens after arrest,” said Paula Montgomery, chair of the league’s education committee.
Specifically, the focus of the discussion will be on the trying of juveniles as adults.
“Escambia, well Florida in general has a very big problem disproportionate to the rest of the United States.” Montgomery said. “In Florida – alone - in the last 5 years, 10,000 kids have been tried as adults and of those 98% did not have a hearing before that decision was made.”
Montgomery says Escambia County is one of the worst offenders in the state, arresting children and trying them as adults in greater numbers than some of the largest counties in the state. It’s a problem that has drawn the attention of organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center and attorney Tania Galloni, who will take part in the Pensacola forum.
“She has written articles for judicial magazines about it and is just a well-known expert in this area,” said Montgomery, noting that Galloni is the managing attorney for the SPLC Florida office in Miami.
Other members of the panel are juvenile defense attorney Kelly Richards and juvenile state’s attorney Marjorie Anders.
Former juvenile offender Spencer Wease will tell his story.
And, joining them on the panel is Rev. Rick Branch. Branch is minister of music at First United Methodist Church, 6 E. Wright St., and founding member of the Escambia County Youth Justice Coalition.
“Currently, the way the system is now, prosecutors have cart blanche to take a youth and try that child as an adult,” said Branch. “And, no other laywers and even no judges, and no juries can stop that. It’s something they can do and they don’t have to answer to anyone for it.”
According to Branch the primary issue is that prosecutors have sole discretion to bypass pre-trial hearings before judges when they do what’s called a “direct file.”
“Even if a judge has an opinion on it, the judge’s hands are completely tied,” Branch said. “If a prosecutor says “I’m direct filing” there’s that anyone can do until after the trial to reverse what the prosecutors have done,”
That’s why legislation is being filed to put judges back in charge of determining whether juveniles should be tried as adults.
Another problem is that after a conviction in adult court, young offenders are being sentenced to serve time in the adult prison system. Branch says adult prisons are purely punitive and are no place for juveniles.
He knows this because of his relationship with church member Warren Williams, who was 14-years old when he shot and killed his father William Williams at their Pensacola home in 2010. The young Williams was just 15-years old when he was sentenced to over 20 years behind bars.
“When Warren was in one prison, where he was so small that they were concerned about his safety among the other adults,” said Branch, making the case that the facility had nothing set up to be able to handle having a 15-year old boy. “The only option this prison had - it was an adult prison; the only option they had was to put him in solitary confinement.”
Warren Williams is now 19 years old, turning 20 next month, and is set for release from prison in 2029.
Branch will talk about Williams’ experiences and what he’s learned about the criminal justice system and its handling of juvenile offenders during tonight’s panel discussion.
The public forum is presented by Branch’s Escambia Youth Justice Coalition, League of Women Voters of the Pensacola Bay Area, Pensacola Coffee Party, and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida.
It will be held at Franco’s Italian Restaurant; beginning at 5:30 p.m. Seating is limited. For more information or to reservations a spot, contact the league’s Paula Montgomery at 850-488-8891.