TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — News Channel 8 exposed the revolving door of Florida’s juvenile justice system, but in just days a big change is coming.
Florida’s top cops told 8 On Your Side the problem was how long you could legally detain an accused teen criminal before trial. The old deadline was 21 days.
If the trial didn’t start by then, the teen would go free.
Now, after our reports, there’s a new law that gives judges more options.
This law impacts a very small group of teenagers in the system: the most serious, repeat offenders. Law enforcement said it’s a game-changer.
In March 2022, there was a deadly chase.
Tampa Police Chief Mary O’Connor said one of her officers spotted a stolen car that night and started a pursuit. According to police, a 12-year-old boy, two 14-year-old boys and a 15-year-old boy tried to escape the officer.
During the chase, police said the boys ended up rear-ending a Honda and knocking it into a utility pole. A 44-year-old woman was killed in the crash.
According to O’Connor, this was not some of the boys’ first brush with the law.
“Two of the teens in the stolen vehicle were arrested just five days prior,” O’Connor said.
Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd discussed the tragic incident with 8 On Your Side Investigator Mahsa Saeidi.
“What went through your mind?” Saeidi asked.
” Deja vu,” Sheriff Judd said. “More of the same because that prolific offender is not deterred by 21 days.”
In Florida, on average it takes 100 days for a juvenile case to go from arrest to trial. The maximum time law enforcement can hold most teens is 21 days.
After that, the judge effectively loses control.
The accused teen is released, able to re-offend while they wait for the next court date.
Last year, Sheriff Judd told 8 On Your Side the decades-old law wasn’t keeping up with the overloaded system.
Now, effective July 1st, a new law, HB 7029, will give judges more discretion.
“So, this is a very important law for us, for the courts, but more importantly, for the safety of the community,” Sheriff Judd said. “This law is for the prolific offender. The kid that’s out robbing, shooting, drive-bys and is very dangerous.”
Sheriff Judd said the law makes the public remarkably safer.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri was the driving force behind the law.
“This puts the judge back in the decision-making seat,” Sheriff Gualtieri said.
A judge can now hold a teen in custody for more than 21 days if they commit a capital felony down to a third-degree felony. However, the third-degree felony has to involve harm to someone else.
“So, it isn’t even every crime,” Gualtieri said.
“What’s excluded?” asked Saeidi.
“Burglary is an example,” Gualtieri said. “With no weapon and no harm, so all the property crimes are excluded.”
Sheriff Gualtieri said the law encourages transition between detention and supervised release.
“The other thing that we put into the statute was encouraging the courts to continually reevaluate these kids,” Sheriff Gualtieri said. “At the end of the day, the people in the state of Florida are going to be safer.”
Every 21 days, the teen is entitled to a hearing.
If the judge determines they’re a danger to the community, they have to explain why in writing.
“At the 60-day mark, the court is required to expedite the trial so that we’re not having these kids just sit and linger in detention,” Sheriff Gualtieri said.