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.