Dark secrets of Florida’s juvenile justice system : A Miami Herald investigation
Last year was a year of epic, impactful journalism.
It was a year when The New York Times and The New Yorker sparked a worldwide #MeToo movement with reporting that “exposed powerful and wealthy sexual predators,” work honored last week with the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
It was a year when reporting by The Washington Post revealed sexual harassment allegations by teenage girls against Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore and “changed the course” of the election, and won the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting.
And it was a year when The Washington Post and The New York Times produced a series of stories that “dramatically furthered the nation’s understanding of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections,” according to the Pulitzer citation for the joint national reporting award.
Amid all of the powerful and impactful national reporting recognized last week by the Pulitzer Prizes, it would be easy to overlook the essential work done last year by local and regional news organizations across the country.
And that would be a mistake.
Take a closer look at some of the other Pulitzer winners and finalists, who offer but a glimpse at the high-impact journalism being done by local newsrooms of all sizes.
The small staff at The Press Democrat in California won in the breaking news category for its real-time and in depth coverage of the wildfires that ravaged the city of Santa Rosa and Sonoma County. In the same category, the Houston Chronicle was honored as a finalist for its comprehensive coverage of the historic flooding in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.
The Cincinnati Enquirer tapped its entire newsroom for one week to chronicle the ravages of the city’s heroin crisis, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting. The Boston Globe, which took on the difficult topic of the city’s race relations, was a finalist in local reporting.
Our sister paper, The Kansas City Star, was a finalist for the prestigious Public Service Prize for its revelatory series, Why so secret, Kansas?, which examined the state government’s decades-long “obsession with secrecy.”
And The Virginian-Pilot was a finalist for investigative reporting for exposing a law that designated first-time convicts as repeat offenders, often resulting in longer sentences than some murderers face.
The Miami Herald was also an investigative reporting finalist for Fight Club, a sweeping series by Carol Marbin Miller and Audra D.S. Burch that investigated a decade of juvenile mistreatment, including beatings, cover-ups, sexual exploitation and medical neglect.
The series, which included powerful videos by Emily Michot and was edited by Investigative Editor Casey Frank, revealed a phenomenon called “honey bunning," where detainees were offered sweets by corrections personnel in exchange for beating other juveniles.
Quite simply, like almost every example cited, our communities simply would never know about these abuses and injustices were it not for the relentless reporting of local news organizations. And it is the kind of work that we can only do thanks to the support of our readers.
“Even as local journalism experiences some of its greatest challenges in decades, news media continue to publish the kinds of important, hard-hitting and consequential journalism that holds public officials accountable and protects vulnerable people and communities,” said Marbin Miller, senior investigative reporter.
If the findings of Fight Club were alarming, the response has been gratifying.
Among them: The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice immediately overhauled its hiring practices, and the department secretary created an Office of Youth and Family Advocacy. The Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office announced it would present Fight Club’s findings to a grand jury. Florida Gov. Rick Scott proposed — and the Legislature approved — the first pay raise in a decade for the DJJ. The state Legislature also passed a law that allows members of that body, prosecutors and public defenders to make surprise inspections of the facilities.
“You do it because you want to see something good come of it," Marbin Miller said. “There aren’t a lot of jobs that don’t require carrying a badge that let you do that.”