JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Monica Jones wasn't a girl to get in trouble. Triple athletic threat -- cheerleading, soccer, track -- she was also an aspiring vocalist, a faithful churchgoer, an honor student with a full ride to Johnson and Wales University.
Her juvenile record? Spotless.
"She was always a good girl," her mother, Belinda Jones says. "I never had to worry about her."
But that changed on Dec. 15, 2012, when Belinda Jones got a call she never expected. Her 17-year-old daughter had been arrested in an armed robbery. Monica was in the car that night when two others – a close friend and a boy she didn't know -- held up a Westside convenience store, then led police on a high-speed chase.
Monica insisted she knew nothing of the plan. Her behavior – including the fact that, after buying chips and soda she stopped to give a homeless man her change – tend to back up her story. But her codefendants, both over 18 and facing significant prison time, eventually changed their story and implicated her.
"I had saved up over $6,000 to buy her a car for graduation," says her mother. "And I had to use that money to pay for an attorney."
Monica admits she had no idea what kind of trouble she was in. "I was surprised. ... The more I sat in detention center, I said – I'm really in here! I really going to jail! This is my 12th grade year. I'm supposed to be going to college, I'm not going. I don't know when I'm going to get out."
More shocking than the arrest, though, was the choice that Monica faced. Prosecutors told her that she'd either have to plead to one of the highest level of juvenile offense, or they'd send her case to adult court, known as a Direct File.
"I know she didn't do this," says her mom. "Her attorney knew she didn't to this. And I really believe the judge knew she didn't do this. But when you have prosecutors that don't want to listen, don't want compromise, just: "adjudicate as adult, direct file" -- that's all that came out of their mouths. ... really, they back you up into a wall."
Florida is unique, one of just 15 states that lets prosecutors decide if a juvenile case should be moved to adult court, and one of just three in which that decision can't be reversed, even by a judge. Although a judge can theoretically offer juvenile punishment to kids sentenced in adult court, the threat of stiff prison sentences persuades most teens to take plea deals -- which a judge can't alter.
Florida's stringent direct-file laws were an outgrowth of early 1990s fears of teen "superpredators," a now discredited term rooted in large part in a notorious and violent rape -- the Central Park Jogger case. Five juveniles were arrested and charged with the crime.
Rob Mason, Director of Juvenile Court for the Public Defender's Office, lived in New York at the time and remembers the case well. "All confessed, all were convicted, all were sent to state prison," he recalls. "It was a really terrible crime. It just scared the pants off us."
But that fear was unfounded.
"As it turns out," Mason notes, "none of them were guilty -- and all five of them have since been exonerated." The Central Park Jogger story has since become a case study of the pitfalls of fear-based justice.
Northeast Florida is known for being tough on crime. But as the science of teenage brains has advanced, the benefit of punishing juveniles as adults is viewed with increasing scorn. There is broad consensus adolescents are fundamentally different from adults, both in impulsivity and judgement. The U.S. Supreme Court has adopted the emerging science, ruling that youthful offenders should be exempt from blanket life sentences as well as outright death sentences.
But even when kids aren't sent to adult court, the threat of a direct file can pressure teens to plead to much stiffer sentences. And according to data from the Department of Juvenile Justice, the 4th Judicial District, including Jacksonville sends more juveniles to lockup than anywhere else in the state.
"It's a very harsh place," says Rob Mason. "To a certain extent, you always have 'justice by geography.' But this isn't a good place to be ... as a kid."
State Attorney Angela Corey declined to be interviewed for this story. But at a debate last year on the subject juvenile justice, she defended a hard line against youthful offenders. "Some of these kids… are bigger than any person in this room and meaner than anybody you've come across," she explained. "Kids have changed."
RELATED LINK: Read Angela Corey's statement on Monica Jones
For Monica, like a lot of teens, the threat of a direct file is significant. Not only does a loss mean adult sanctions, but even a victory could take as long as two years: an eternity for any juvenile -- and in this case, a year longer than the deal she was offered.
In the end, Monica accepted the offer. A high-risk commitment in the juvenile system. And because there were no beds available at a regular facility, she was sent to a maximum security psychiatric facility in South Florida.
"They would strip naked, run around, eat dirt, urinate everywhere, rip down stuff break stuff, break chairs fight each other," she recalls of her time there. "Police had to be out there [for] riots almost every day." Once, she says, a girl broke a staffer's leg.
Throughout it all, Monica's mother visited every other weekend. The drive was 4 1/2 hours each way, for just a 2 hour visit. "But she needed me," she says. "She was my child."
By the time she was released, in November 2013, Monica had spent nearly a year behind razor wire. She missed Christmas, her 18th birthday, her graduation, even her stepfather's funeral.
"Sometimes I would wake up," she says, and think, "I'm really in this place!." But she fought those thoughts. "You can't really stress in that place, or you'll go crazy"
Today, Monica is trying to get her life back. She lost her scholarship to Johnson and Wales, but hopes to begin college in the fall. In the meantime, she enrolled in beauty school, just to be productive and keep learning. She keeps in touch with some of the girls she met in lockup, and says someday she plans to help similar kids in crisis. But while she tries to be reflective about her time in lockup, for her mother, the lesson is one of juvenile injustice.
"That really made me understand the system is not for our children at all. You hear how they are supposed rehab our kids, or help our kids, but no. The system is not for our kids."
To read more about Monica's story and District 4 juvenile justice policies, visit our news partner the Florida Times Union.