October 25, 2017

Children in Florida's Criminal Justice System Deserve Much More From the Adults Responsible for Their Care

The recent Miami Herald report on residential conditions in juvenile justice facilities, Fight Club, exposed a horrific environment.

The report delineates multiple factors relating to the abuse of children residing in the facilities who are purportedly in the care of the state:

  • Incoming staff who supervise the youth are paid about $20 per hour and are not screened to weed out those who have criminal backgrounds.
  • Some adult supervisors are known to reward youth for beating specified juveniles with whom the supervisors have issues. Sometimes they simply look the other way when two or more youth are involved in a fight.
  • Cameras in the facilities are redirected or smudged so that they cannot record evidence of the beatings. Many fights and abusive acts are moved to locations that do not have camera coverage.
  • Youth who have been beaten in the facilities frequently did not receive timely, adequate medical care.

This must stop, immediately.

When troubled youths are removed from the streets, it’s presumably to preserve public safety. They are being placed in facilities that are intended to provide intensive developmental services– counseling, academic and job preparation programs. Purportedly, this aspect of juvenile justice removes youths from influences that promote illegal activities, providing a new environment in which they can development a better internal compass and legitimate skills to take to a workforce.

In reality, it appears that violent behavior is being reinforced by adult role models at these facilities.

As Floridians, we are paying for the psychological and physical brutality that these residents experience. And we’ll likely pay again when these young people return to their communities only to apply attitudes reinforced at the juvenile facility. This indiscretion can result in their placement in an adult correctional facility.

We are failing these youths every day that they are in residence. We are failing to keep them safe from themselves and each other, and from adults employed in the facilities. More insidiously, we are reinforcing the notion that they are inherently bad and irredeemable. And worse still, we are squandering an opportunity to help troubled kids gain the attitudes and skills that will lead to self-respect and high standards for personal growth and leadership.

At the very least, DJJ should be replacing the camera systems in all of its residential facilities with cameras that are tamper-proof. In the department’s state budget request for the coming year it seeks $250,000 for facility updates that also include purchasing emergency generators, updating fire safety systems and replacing porcelain toilets with ones that are stainless steel. The request belies any sense of urgency on the part of DJJ to address the problem.

The department must make an effort to rehabilitate residential youth, but first, it has to demonstrate a hands-on commitment to protecting the kids in its care; namely, DJJ has to develop standards for the adults who directly supervise youth and ensure that standards are maintained, and it must take responsibility for the conduct of comprehensive rehabilitation programs through which youth can be transformed into productive young adults.

Now that we know about these conditions, embarking on comprehensive systemic reform is essential.

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