ORLANDO, Fla. – The number of children being charged as adults in Florida’s criminal courts has dropped considerably in the past few years and it’s a trend one local state attorney said should continue.
Florida once led the nation in this statistic, but the law was changed to keep more of those children out of prison.
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One man found his way out of this system and is now helping others avoid lifelong consequences.
Marquis McKenzie, 31, has swept, wiped and cleaned his way to a new life.
He started his janitorial business—The Dirt Master—six years ago and has since branched out into working with contractors cleaning new construction homes.
Starting his business was a necessity.
“A lot of doors were closing in my face and I was like, ‘Man, this is real,’” McKenzie told News 6.
The doors were closing because in 2007, at age 15, McKenzie was arrested on an armed robbery charge for stealing a cell phone and a wallet.
He was charged as an adult—and convicted.
After serving two years in prison, he was still a teenager, but now a convicted felon.
“So I just thought I can go to school, you know, get my degree or something, and then I’ll be right back inside the classroom with the kids,” McKenzie said.
But it wasn’t that simple.
He wanted to go to school to be a teacher and then a nurse, but said he was turned down for both programs.
“I had to check the box on the application,” McKenzie said. “The question was ‘Have you ever been convicted of a felony or do you have a past criminal record. So I was like, all right, I’m done with that.”
When McKenzie was sent to adult court, Florida was in the thick of charging juveniles as adults.
Between 2006 and 2011, more than 15,600 juveniles statewide passed through the adult criminal court system, for violent and non-violent offenses.
Between 2016 and 2021, that number dropped drastically to less than 6,000, according to data from the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.
“That really comes down to how we as a society choose to treat our children,” said Orange-Osceola State Attorney Monique Worrell.
Worrell is familiar with McKenzie’s story, and believes juveniles charged as adults should be the exception and not the rule.
“They can’t vote. They can’t buy alcohol. They can’t buy cigarettes. But they can go to prison? That’s just inconsistent,” she said.
In a 2011 report, the U.S. Department of Justice identified Florida’s rate of charging juveniles as adults as disproportionately high compared to other states.
In 2014, Florida passed Senate Bill 474 sponsored by Senator Randolph Bracy, which raised the age of charging juveniles as adults.
Back at the work site, McKenzie, who knows how hard it was to get a job after being incarcerated, is now hiring people who have been incarcerated.
Terrance Roberts was released from prison last September after serving 15 years. He’s 32 now.
“I can’t (thank) Dirt Masters and Marquis McKenzie enough,” Roberts said. “Gave me a job. I have an apartment now. It’s been all because he’s been right there. He understands what it’s like to be in that position, so he helped me.”
McKenzie is now also trying to expand a new construction portion of his company because the construction industry is friendly toward convicted felons, he said.
For more information on McKenzie’s cleaning business, click here.