Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Trial over Polk's treatment of young offenders starts in Tampa

LAKELAND — A federal lawsuit against the Polk County Sheriff's Office alleging overly harsh jail conditions for young defendants will have its first day of testimony today in a Tampa courtroom.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights organization, filed the suit in March 2012 on behalf of seven juveniles. Lawyers estimate the trial could last as long as six weeks.

U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday ultimately will rule in the case.

Among the suit's claims are a lack of supervision, inadequate rehabilitative programs and an overuse of pepper spray on juveniles at the Polk County Jail. Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd has denied the allegations and insists pepper spray is a last resort to prevent fights.

Tania Galloni, a Southern Poverty attorney, said she'll show Polk County Jail staff used the chemical restraint on 180 children at least 90 times in less than two years, many times inappropriately. She also said there's "no accountability to ensure that all incidents are being tracked."

Scott Wilder, a sheriff's spokesman, denied that, saying that the jail documents each use of force, and that the facility is secure and safe for juveniles.

"Do we expect the court to say anything other than that?" Wilder asked. "No. We've done an outstanding job."

The aim of the lawsuit, Galloni said, is to force the Sheriff's Office to make what she considers simple fixes to bring the jail into line with national practices: adding supervision within living areas, improving mental health programs and using safety controls that reduce or eliminate the use of pepper spray.

The Sheriff's Office operates the jail and has long housed juveniles. In October 2011, it took in those once held in a state-run Bartow detention center.

The move came after a law change that allowed counties to take over the responsibilities of state centers.

Judd lobbied for the change, arguing it would save the county money to house the young defendants compared with what it paid the Florida Department of Juvenile Jus­tice.

The county has spent more than $1 million preparing for the trial. County officials say the expenses above that amount are covered by insurance.

Nationally, juvenile detention centers have evolved toward a rehabilitative model, Galloni said. Polk County is among only six jurisdictions in the country that allow their jail staffs to carry pepper spray.

"What's happening in Polk County is going against the grain, against national practices," she said.

Trial over Polk's treatment of young offenders starts in Tampa 11/17/13 [Last modified: Sunday, November 17, 2013 8:43pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Editorial: Turn the heat up on AC problem in Hillsborough schools


    Hillsborough County School District students do not want to hear that their buildings are decrepit. They do not want to hear that Florida's legislators are complicit. All they want to hear is the sweet sound of a classroom air conditioner kicking in at full power. Anything less creates uncomfortably hot classrooms and …

    Superintendent Jeff Eakins and the current Hillsborough County School Board did not create this air conditioning mess, but they own it now.
  2. Man in bunny mask part of trio that breaks into Odessa McDonald's to haul away ATM


    ODESSA — A man in a bunny mask and two also-masked accomplices broke into a McDonald's early Wednesday, hoisted an automatic teller machine into a stolen minivan, then dumped the ATM and the van into a pond, deputies say.

    Three masked men, including one in a bunny mask, broke into an Odessa McDonald's early Wednesday and stole the ATM.
 [Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office]
  3. Plan your weekend Aug. 25-27: Craig Morgan, Wearable Art 13, SNL's Pete Davidson, Rodeo Fest


    Plan your weekend


    Pete Davidson: Saturday Night Live star Pete Davidson will headline this year's University of South Florida Round-Up Comedy Show, a back-to-school tradition at USF. Expect to hear about his recent trip to rehab, since he's known for his confessional …

    The 12th annual Wearable art Fashion Show was held at the Dunedin Fine Art Center on Saturday evening, August 27, 2016.
DAVID W DOONAN | Special To The Times
  4. Richard Corcoran takes aim at public financing of campaigns

    State Roundup

    TALLAHASSEE — House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, may not be running for governor — not yet anyway — but his latest idea will get the attention of those who are.

    House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R- Land O' Lakes, is proposing an end to public financing of campaigns. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]
  5. Jeb Bush on the 'most ridiculous example of political correctness in history'


    Jeb Bush on ESPN's decision to pull commentator Robert Lee from a football broadcast at the University of Virginia.