TAMPA, Fla. — Susan Lopez has been the appointed Hillsborough County state attorney since August. In that time, she's changed the way teens are prosecuted in gun-related cases.
There has been an increase of more than 20 percent of gun-related juvenile cases prosecuted in adult court since Lopez was appointed to her position.
"The fact is, we are witnessing more juveniles in our city and in our county with guns, committing violent crimes that are putting people in danger and even costing the lives of innocent victims," Lopez explained.
Lopez said the punishment should fit the crime, no matter the age.
"Juveniles were given a free pass because they're kids," she said. "Since I have been state attorney, I have taken a different position and I want the community to know about it."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, gun violence is the number one cause of death among teens in America. Stacey Spencer is the founder of Teen Tyme. The non-profit has a program focused on helping at-risk kids.
"An adult should be tried as an adult," Spencer said. "A child doesn't have the psychological prowess to be able to understand maybe some of the ramifications that extenuate when they do use guns and violence."
She said diversion and rehabilitation should be considered in juvenile cases.
"When they are so young there needs to be a level of grace and compassion extended," Spencer said.
Lopez said the cases escalated to adult court are for serious crimes, like murder or attempted murder.
"The decision to charge a juvenile as an adult, what we call a direct file, is not made by one individual, it's made by a team," Lopez stated.
Lopez said the tool she has to fight gun violence is prosecution, and she'll use that tool when juveniles make harmful adult decisions.
"Teens committing these serious acts of violence are not scared of the consequences," Lopez said. "Under my watch here at the state attorney's office, we're holding criminals accountable if they've committed violent crimes with guns and continue to put our community in danger."