The first steps in a series of reforms designed to increase oversight and accountability in state prison and juvenile justice facilities were passed Tuesday by a key committee of the Florida Senate.
The Senate Criminal Justice Committee unanimously approved a series of bills sponsored by Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Republican from St. Petersburg who has declared his intention to overhaul outdated criminal justice policies.
The move came in the wake of Fight Club, a Miami Herald investigation spurred by the death of a 17-year-old foster child at the Miami-Dade juvenile lockup. Elord Revolte died after he was suddenly attacked by a dozen kicking, punching juvenile detainees. No one was charged, although the assault erupted in front of video cameras. Two of the detained boys said the onslaught was instigated by a guard, who was offended that Elord had spoken to him disrespectfully.
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Over nearly two years, Herald reporters examined that death and others, and documented the sexual exploitation of youthful detainees, medical neglect and abusive treatment by underpaid staffers, who sometimes encouraged youths to fight each other in exchange for food rewards.
“Everything points to that we are going to get meaningful reform done,’’ Brandes said after the meeting. “There’s a new vision and an understanding we can’t stay where we are — both fiscally and outcome-based.”
He was confident the reforms could start this year and he said he has sensed “excitement among members on the Senate side and amongst Republican members of the House.”
As chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Appropriations Committee, he expects to wrap the reforms together into a larger bill as early as next week and direct state money into ensuring the changes are implemented.
Many of the reforms were inspired not only by Fight Club but by a separate Herald investigative series, Cruel and Unusual. That investigation highlighted inmate abuse and management failures at the Department of Corrections, including many questionable deaths.
Brandes said the Senate’s legislation will produce more oversight of the private companies that operate the 53 residential facilities for juvenile delinquents under contract with DJJ.
“We’re talking about more reporting. We’re creating public advocates in those facilities to increase monitoring,’’ Brandes said. “We are going to put cameras in these facilities and are going to provide pay raises so that we can attract higher-quality individuals who supervise these kids.”
Brandes said DJJ and FDC have been supportive of the changes and he expects to include in the budget money for DJJ to install two-way communications cameras in the public areas of the residential programs to allow for constant monitoring and feedback, he said.
“They’ll be able to view incidences in real time in their most high-risk facilities — not have to go to those facilities and pick up the tape,’’ he said. “They’ll also be able to press a button and interact immediately in high-risk situations.”
When staff is aware they are being watched and there is enhanced accountability, Brandes predicts, “there will be a change in behavior.”
In addition, he said there will be pay raises for officers at juvenile justice facilities.
Among the measures passed Tuesday is an effort to increase oversight at the privately run juvenile detention facilities operated in Florida. SB 1004 would require the DJJ to allow all legislators, public defenders and members of the governor’s agencies to make surprise visits to any state juvenile detention facilities. It would also stipulate that DJJ “may not unreasonably withhold access to reporters or writers in the media space.”
Another bill would expand the state’s supervised community release program for inmates at the end of their sentences to help them better transition back into their communities. SB 1208 would allow the Department of Corrections to choose inmates who could benefit from transition efforts by helping get them into work release programs, on electronic monitors and into community housing during the last 90 days of their sentence.
“This allows us to have that decompression period back into society,’’ Brandes explained. “This is my attempt to stabilize individuals in that regard.”
In an effort to create an organized public advocate for the prison and juvenile justice system, SB 1208 creates a new Correctional Oversight Council, a nine-member board of volunteers who would evaluate adult prisons and DJJ detention facilities, conduct announced and unannounced inspections and identify problem facilities.
The goal is to create experts who “understand at a deeper level and report that back up,’’ Brandes said.
Under SB 1220, officers who interrogate inmates after an adverse incident would have to record the interview with video or audio equipment.
“It’s 2018 and it’s my belief we should videotape or audiotape certain custodial interrogations,’’ Brandes said. This “basket of policies will hopefully change the trajectory” of the agency, he added.
These are not the only criminal justice proposals under consideration.
Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, the chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, has proposed increasing the age at which a youth may be prosecuted as an adult. Under his bill, SB 936, the age at which a child can be prosecuted as an adult would increase from 14 or 15 to 16 or 17. The measure would also limit the offenses that qualify a child to be prosecuted as an adult. It has not yet had a hearing.