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Florida Lawmakers To Soon Do In-Depth Look Into Miami Herald's DJJ 'Fight Club' Probe

Florida Channel

Florida lawmakers are expected to soon take a deeper look into the Miami Herald investigative series, which detailed abuses within the state’s juvenile facilities. A panel of legislators this week gave the head of the Florida’s juvenile justice system a preview of what’s to come.

To Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Christy Daly, her agency has made a lot of strides for the juveniles in her care.

“We have 60 percent less low and moderate and risk kids going to our commitment programs,” she said, speaking recently to lawmakers. “We are at the lowest juvenile arrest rate in over 50 years in this state. We have the lowest recidivism for kids that are treated on probation in the community, and I will tell you the decrease for residential for those low and moderate and risk kids…those kids are the ones that are in the community that are having better outcomes, as a result now.”

And, she feels that’s just part of what was left out of the two-year Miami Herald investigation that looked at DJJ records over the course of a decade.

Looking at facilities across the state, it outlined many instances of juvenile detention officers and staff physically and sexually abusing young detainees.

And, while she acknowledges the Miami Herald’s series isn’t inaccurate, Daly says a lot of what was provided to the newspaper was “left out, mischaracterized, or dismissed without reason.”

“I have always said, I want to know where our dirty laundry is because if I don’t know about it, I can’t fix it,” she continued. “For the issues and the things that have been focused on in the articles, we knew about them.  We responded to them. We have held people accountable, and we are continuing to move forward and realize that there are thousands of children that come into the system that leave better because of it.”

Still, some lawmakers recently pressed her on the series of articles that highlighted the kids who did not leave better: some left pregnant, some forced to engage in “so-called fight clubs,” and others are dead.

The Miami Herald series also talks about the privatization of juvenile residential facilities. Privatization—particularly prison privatization—has been a controversial issue for years in the legislature.

And, during a recent meeting of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice, that drew the attention of Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez (D-Miami).

“Privatization is a central component to how the system is here in Florida, and we talk about accountability,” he said, at the time. “Can you address whether or not we should be moving away from a privatized system? I mean, if we don’t have the capacity here in Florida to ensure the safety of kids who are in detention centers or residential programs. Shouldn’t we be revisiting the use of privatization in our system?”

While the state’s residential services are 100 percent privatized, the juvenile detention centers are state-run.

In residential facilities, juveniles are required by a judge to serve a sentence and undergo treatment. At a detention center, juveniles may be awaiting a court date or placement in a residential program.

Still, Daly says the privatization is not a DJJ issue, because that was the legislature’s decision. But, she adds her agency has been working well with the private providers, and DJJ still oversees the privatized programs.

“So, to answer your question, ‘is it better or not better?’ We have put tools in place to ensure that we are providing the proper oversight for the programs, based [on] that we are a privatized system,” Daly replied.

The series also talked about how low pay and inexperienced staff may have played a role in some of the abuses. It also gave examples of the hiring and firing of people who are unqualified for their positions.

For example, some people who lost their previous jobs for having improper relationships with inmates or had a violent past were still given employment opportunities to work with juvenile offenders.

Others who were investigated for abuses were allowed to quit and given glowing recommendations for another job.

Lawmakers, like  Sen. Jeff Clemens (D-Lake Worth), asked Daly what she’s doing about that.

“Looking at the article, and having sat on this community for a few years, from what I can understand, employees from these privatized facilities are paid far less than they would be in public facilities across the country,” he said. “And, I wonder—in looking at some of the hiring practices in terms of who’s been hired and what they’re backgrounds are, I wonder if these are some of the glaring holes that need to be fixed in order to address this problem.”

And, Daly replied her agency is currently working with private providers to strengthen their hiring practices.

“Ultimately, I would imagine it would be something that would be put in their contract,” she responded. “But, we’re in the process right now…because they all have different hiring practices and policies and things like that. So, really sitting down with them and coming up with a comprehensive approach that everyone can use.”

Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg)—who chairs the Senate committee—says he intends to do a “deeper dive” into the Miami Herald investigation at a later date. He’s also hoping to get the authority to allow lawmakers to go into any juvenile facility unannounced—like they can for Florida prisons. 

Listen here to the audio version of the investigative series by member station WLRN.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.

Sascha Cordner has more than ten years of public radio experience. It includes working at NPR member station WUFT-FM in Gainesville for several years. She's worked in both radio and TV, serving in various capacities as a reporter, producer and anchor. She's also a graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in telecommunications. She is the recipient of 15 awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and Edward R. Murrow. Her award-winning stories include her coverage on the infamous “Dozier School for Boys” and a feature titled "Male Breast Cancer: Lost in the Sea of Pink." Currently, Sascha serves as the host and producer of local and state news content for the afternoon news program "All Things Considered" at WFSU. Sascha primarily covers criminal justice and social services issues. When she's not reporting, Sascha likes catching up on her favorite TV shows, singing and reading. Follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter:@SaschaCordner.