The in-your-face intimidation and aggressive "pain compliance" techniques that teenager Martin Lee Anderson suffered from boot camp guards before his death were outlawed Wednesday by state lawmakers, who voted to rename the facilities and demilitarize them to make them emphasize treatment rather than fear.
The Martin Lee Anderson Act bans the use of stun guns, pepper spray, pressure points, mechanical restraints and psychological intimidation unless a child is a threat to himself or others.
The act, proposed first by Miami Beach lawmaker Gus Barreiro, seeks to clone Florida's most successful boot camp, in Martin County, which stresses positive thinking, counseling and community service.
"It's sad a young man had to die for us to come to this kind of conclusion. We can say now, when we leave to go home, that we changed the mind-set of how we're going to deal with young people in the state of Florida, " said Sen. Tony Hill, a Jacksonville Democrat and leader of the state's black caucus.
Never miss a local story.
The legislation, a part of the state budget, also boosts the new program by $32.6 million. Approved Wednesday by a joint House-Senate committee, the bill will likely pass both chambers easily, though some senators initially balked at making the changes and instead wanted to study boot camps.
Barreiro said no. The Republican representative proposed the changes to the boot camps, of which there are four in Florida, after Martin's death.
"A kid is dead. It's one death too many. There's nothing to study. Unfortunately, this all came too late for Martin, " Barreiro said.The boot camps have been under scrutiny since Jan. 5, when Martin, 14, died hours after he was punched, kneed and manhandled by a group of guards at a Panama City boot camp, where he had been sent as punishment for joyriding in his grandmother's car.
A videotape of the incident, made public after The Miami Herald and CNN sued under the state's public records law, caused an avalanche of outrage across the nation as viewers watched the teen get roughed up by eight men. The four sheriffs who run the remaining camps say many of the techniques seen in the tape - commonplace at the Panama City facility - were not permitted at their facilities.
The boy's death, together with the emotional public reaction, already has wrought significant changes.
Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen, who ran the boot camp, shuttered his program, saying the microscopic scrutiny of his camp had made it impossible to operate. And last week, Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Guy Tunnell resigned, several days after The Miami Herald reported he had written several cozy e-mails to McKeithen even as his agency was investigating McKeithen's boot camp. Tunnell also got in trouble for jokingly referring to civil rights leader Jesse Jackson as Jesse James and to U.S. Sen. Barack Obama as Osama bin Laden.
Martin's death is under investigation by Mark Ober, the Tampa state attorney named special prosecutor by Gov. Jeb Bush, as well as the FBI and federal prosecutors in Tallahassee. Ober is awaiting the results of a second autopsy performed on the teen.
KEY POINTS OF ACT
With the Panama City camp closed, lawmakers have diverted its money to the other camps and boosted bottom-line spending to $10.6 million. The Martin Lee Anderson Act also establishes a seven-member commission to independently review the Department of Juvenile Justice's programs. Juveniles would have an extensive physical exam and access to an abuse hot-line telephone number. The act also mandates more training for staff at the camps, which will now be called Sheriff's Training and Respect Academies.
State Attorney General Charlie Crist has asked for a review of some former cases of the Bay County medical examiner, Dr. Charles Siebert, who determined Martin died of sickle cell trait, not his rough handling by guards.
Siebert, who is vigorously defending his professional findings, said Crist was responding to politics, and has called the attorney general's move a "witch hunt."
Gov. Jeb Bush - who has questioned the autopsy result, saying it "defied common sense" - has signaled he approves of the boot camp changes.
Martin County Sheriff Bob Crowder praised the Legislature, but expressed concern that the tight-fisted lawmakers and the DJJ have not fully funded many aspects of the juvenile justice system, including his camp, which he is shutting down. Still, he said, the state rightly decided to move away from aggressively handling youth.
"The in-your-face intimidation doesn't work, " he said. "It not only hurts the kids, it's stressful on the staff. No one wants to spend all day pushing kids and yelling at them."
MORE TO BE DONE
Critics of the state's juvenile justice agency say much remains to be done.
State Rep. Dan Gelber, who helped spark the campaign for change with Barreiro when both men described Martin's ordeal to The Miami Herald after viewing the tape, said he was not "celebrating" the new law because it highlights a pressing concern: The DJJ seems capable of improving only following the death of a child and the outrage of lawmakers.
"I'm not sure the department has convinced anybody it's capable of conducting adequate oversight, " Gelber said, noting a recent Herald report that showed DJJ officials had been aware of 180 incidents of physical force against youths in Bay County but failed to raise any red flags.
"This is the same point we've always been at with the Department of Déja Vu, " said Gelber, a Miami Beach Democrat. "We are implementing constant reforms to compensate for the absence of oversight. We shouldn't operate that way. It shouldn't take a child's death to focus on an area that should have been previously scrutinized."