They were, by every definition, troubled kids.
Abused, abandoned, assaulted. At the cusp of adulthood, they found themselves in trouble with the law.
Martin Lee Anderson, 14, was sent to boot camp after he was caught joyriding in his grandmother’s Jeep. He suffocated to death in the grips of a punitive takedown.
Eric Perez, 18, was sent to a juvenile detention center after he was arrested for having a small amount of marijuana. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage hours after a guard dropped him on his skull.
At 17, Elord Revolte was in a Miami detention center on armed robbery charges. He died from blunt force injury after a savage beating by at least 12 other detainees, allegedly egged on with the promise of snacks.
They were among the dozen kids, ages 12 to 18, who died under questionable circumstances in juvenile justice centers across Florida since 2000, among the findings of Fight Club, a Miami Herald investigation published this week.
“They made mistakes,” said Carol Marbin Miller, senior investigative reporter on the project. “But they shouldn’t have died. Joyriding should not be a capital offense.”
It was Elord’s death two years ago that was the catalyst for the sweeping investigation into Florida’s long-troubled juvenile justice system by Marbin Miller, former Miami Herald reporter Audra D.S. Burch, visual journalist Emily Michot and investigations editor Casey Frank.
His death uncovered the practice called “honey-bunning,” where staffers sometimes bribe detainees to beat down a fellow detainee, in exchange for sweet treats. While previous high-profile deaths had caught the attention of lawmakers, the problems persisted.
“We needed to take a deep, deep dive and figure out the root causes,” Marbin Miller said.
The team analyzed a decade of data and found a system beset by lax hiring standards, low pay, sexual misconduct, a culture of violence and little accountability.
The stories are difficult to read. But it is important that you do. This work is at the very core of our mission to provide local, accountability journalism.
If you are moved, we hope that you will share these stories through social media and with friends, with lawmakers, and think about what Florida should do to course-correct our most vulnerable children.
Already, the series is having an impact. Just two weeks ago, knowing the Miami Herald was soon to publish this investigation, Gov. Rick Scott recommended that wages be improved for juvenile justice workers.
It’s clear there is much more work to do. The state juvenile justice system that is supposed to reform juvenile delinquents has a one-year recidivism rate of 45 percent.
And there are examples of other states getting this right.
“They are children,” Marbin Miller said. “Help them now or pay for it later when they enter the adult system. This isn’t a can you can kick down the road indefinitely.”