Change comes, slowly, to Florida’s juvenile justice system

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The Florida House on Friday unanimously passed a bill protecting teens from abuse by staff in lock-ups run by the Department of Juvenile Justice – but for many advocates, the Legislature should be putting more protections in place, reports Margie Menzel of the News Service of Florida.

The Dream Defenders, a youth group focused on juvenile justice issues, called this week for protection from arrests at school for minor incidents. The group also called for an end to pepper spray and solitary confinement in jails run by Florida counties and to stop putting teens in the juvenile justice system for misdemeanor first offenses.

Florida incarcerates more youths per capita than any of the 10 most populous states. Last year, more than 58,000 were arrested – a rate 40 percent higher than the national average. 

So members of the Dream Defenders staged a sit-in this week at Gov. Rick Scott’s office and called on the Legislature to give their bills a hearing, but the measure that passed Friday wasn’t on their radar screen.

DJJ had asked Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, to sponsor the bill (HB 353) after the death of Eric Perez of a cerebral hemorrhage at the Palm Beach Regional Detention Center in 2011. A 2012 inspector general’s report found that agency employees didn’t call for help because they thought Perez was faking his illness. A grand-jury report was scathing, but found criminal charges couldn’t be filed against the staff because there was no basis in state law. So HB 353 expands the definition of child abuse to include youths in DJJ detention facilities. 

DJJ Secretary Wansley Walters said the bill was necessary but the incident itself was “an outlier – and it was swiftly dealt with. And that certainly sends a message.” 

Since Perez’ death, DJJ has developed a yearly audit to review its employees for compliance with policies and procedures, and a tool to screen potential employees for their ability to work with detained youths. The Palm Beach lock-up’s telephones were reconfigured so teens could make free calls to lawyers, probation officers and the state abuse hotline.

“We will not tolerate children being abused,” Walters said. “We will not tolerate children being neglected. Too many children have had that experience and found their way into our system, and our system will not do that to them.” 

She pointed to the Milton Girls Juvenile Residential Facility, which was closed last winter after a former guard was charged with child abuse for her treatment of a 15-year-old inmate. A DJJ surveillance video surfaced in which Shannon Abbott appeared to slam the girl into a wall, throw her to the ground and pin her. Although Abbott filed an incident report saying the teen had resisted, the video did not appear to support her, and she was found guilty last month.

“I think there was a culture there that was really being kept secret and being hidden from our department,” Walters said. “But it has emerged, and fortunately law enforcement has gotten involved and people are being held accountable – after the fact, because within a few months of that incident, that program was closed. And that will be our approach throughout our system.”

Perhaps the biggest issue for advocates, though, is what the Southern Poverty Law Center’s David Utter calls “state-sanctioned child abuse down in Polk County.”

That would be SPLC’s top legislative priority, SB 506 by Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, which would repeal a 2011 law (SB 2112) that allows Florida counties to run their own juvenile justice facilities. Three counties now do so – Polk, Seminole and Marion – but only Polk uses pepper spray on juveniles.

SPLC has brought a federal lawsuit against Polk County and Sheriff Grady Judd for the practice, which Judd strongly defends. 

“Why would you rather us fight these kids – some of them well over six foot and 200 pounds – why would you want us to fight them on a concrete floor and take the chance of injuring them or us when they’re so incorrigible they won’t de-escalate, when a simple spray from the pepper spray de-escalates most opportunities for there having to be a physical fight?” Judd asked.

He said pepper spray quickly wears off, whereas many advocates say it shouldn’t be used on juveniles because their brains aren’t fully developed.

“The overwhelming view in Florida and the rest of the nation regarding the use of pepper spray in juvenile settings is at odds with Sheriff’s Judd’s practice,” wrote Magistrate Judge Mark A. Pizzo last month. “He would be wise to develop a plan for reducing the juvenile-on-juvenile violence and limiting the use of pepper spray.”

Judd also said Polk County complies with the Florida Model Jail Standards, which are different from the DJJ standards, and that housing juveniles at the jail – separately from adult inmates – saves Polk County millions of dollars. 

Seminole County also operates its own juvenile detention center, and Major Scott Ballou told an audience at the panel discussion “Kids are Different: Youth in the Justice System” last month at St. Petersburg College that the cost was indeed a factor.

“(Senate Bill) 2112 was born of years of frustration over detention cost reimbursement,” Ballou said. “I can tell you the last time we paid, the per diem rate was $282 per day per child – and that’s crazy.”

Seminole County has cut the daily average number of incarcerated youths from between 40 and 50 to 15, he said. 

“That’s why we wanted to do it. It wasn’t to abuse children by any stretch of the imagination,” Ballou said. “Because of local control, we have a lot of options on detention avoidance.”

Joyner’s bill repealing SB 2112 hasn’t been heard, nor has its House companion by Rep. Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville. 

Neither has SB 660/HB 603, requiring law enforcement to issue civil citations and provide diversion programs for first-time offenders who commit misdemeanors.

Neither has SB 1374/HB 1039, intended to reduce what the Dream Defenders call the “school-to-prison pipeline” by requiring schools with zero tolerance policies to report to law enforcement only serious threats to school safety.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including,,, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.