Two state lawmakers from Miami-Dade County have filed a bill that would allow legislators, judges and public defenders to make surprise inspections of lockups and residential programs overseen by the Department of Juvenile Justice.
The bill, sponsored by Democrats Rep. David Richardson of Miami Beach and Rep. Cynthia Stafford of Miami, was filed a little more than a week after the two, along with three of their colleagues, toured the Miami-Dade Regional Juvenile Detention Center and proclaimed it a disgrace.
“The living conditions are horrible, horrific, deplorable,” state Rep. Kionne McGhee, a Cutler Bay Democrat, said as he left the lockup. “Unacceptable. Unacceptable. And we want answers.”
The tour — and the bill — are reactions to Fight Club, the Miami Herald’s six-part series detailing an array of failures within the state’s long-troubled juvenile justice system.
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The Herald detailed the widespread use of unnecessary and excessive force, workers who outsource discipline by designating youths as enforcers; sexual misconduct by staff, some of which goes unreported; and a propensity of employees to neglect the medical needs of teens, sometimes calling them fakers.
On the Oct. 18 tour, lawmakers said they observed mold, mildew, seeping toilet water, broken showers and confinement areas without running water. In one building only three of the 10 showers worked, Richardson said at the time. Water from the wall behind the two toilets spilled out onto the floor, slowly making its way to the assembly area’s carpet as the youths came and went, compounding the mold and mildew problem. The building housed about 20 detainees.
Florida statutes allow state legislators to make unannounced visits to adult prisons — and Richardson has made dozens of such excursions in recent years, later reporting his observations to administrators at the Department of Corrections. He said some of his complaints have resulted in better conditions for inmates. The law, however, does not allow senators or representatives to tour juvenile lockups or residential programs without securing prior approval.
“The purpose of our system is to rehabilitate kids who have made mistakes and gotten into trouble, but current procedures aren’t achieving that goal. Instead, we have a structure rife with physical violence, sexual abuse, and medical negligence,” Stafford said of the bill. “Unraveling and aggressively fighting this abusive system is a need that transcends partisan politics. Allowing Florida’s elected officials access to juvenile facilities will help expose the malicious, cruel and corrupt practices that these children face daily.”
DJJ has no objection to the bill, said Heather DiGiacomo, an agency spokeswoman. “DJJ has always welcomed the visits of Florida legislative members to our programs and facilities so they can see firsthand the innovative and aggressive reforms our department has put into place over the past seven years,” she said Thursday.
On Oct. 18, the same day Richardson and his colleagues visited the Miami lockup, DJJ Secretary Christine K. Daly wrote to several representatives and offered to help them schedule tours of local lockups or programs, if they wished to inspect them.
“One of the best ways for you as a member of the Legislature to gain firsthand knowledge of our system and how we serve youth and families is by visiting one of these facilities,” Daly wrote.
“Our programs provide a very structured schedule for our youth which includes classroom instruction, vocational training, mental health and substance abuse counseling, and recreation as well as visiting time for families and attorneys of the youth. Many of our youth suffer from previous trauma and interruptions of their daily schedules can be problematic. And, of course, the youth in our programs are statutorily entitled to a degree of confidentiality that adult offenders do not share,” she added.
On Wednesday, the Florida chapter of the NAACP called on the U.S. Justice Department to initiate an investigation into abuses the Herald series highlighted. The same day, members of a state House of Representatives committee expressed skepticism at Daly’s repeated claims that the abuses were the work of a handful of “bad apples.” The lawmakers said they want to develop greater accountability and transparency from DJJ, as well as the 53 privately run residential programs the agency oversees.
“Kids are sent to these facilities to be reformed in order to learn from their mistakes, get treatment and assimilate back into our communities. However, it seems they are often worse off in the facilities,” Rep. Shevrin Jones said Thursday in a statement.
“Recently, many have come forward with their stories of physical and sexual abuse, as well as widespread medical negligence. The staff members, many of whom are not properly vetted through the application process due to a lack of a thorough background check, should be held responsible for the horrific acts and tragedies these children have suffered through,” the West Park Democrat added.