Confronted with documentation of sanctioned brutality and sexual abuse in Florida's juvenile detention centers, the reaction from Gov. Rick Scott's administration was defensive and obtuse. So it's welcome news that Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle is convening a grand jury to take a closer look at the barbaric culture inside Department of Juvenile Justice centers around Florida. Someone must look out for these kids if the governor won't.
The Miami Herald published a series titled "Fight Club" in September detailing horrific abuses in juvenile lockups and privately run residential programs. Fights are a common occurrence, not just spontaneous brawls born out of lack of control by guards. The Herald detailed how some staffers actually encourage the violence with rewards of food and other incentives. Hiring standards are so lax that people with violent criminal histories, including sex crimes, had no problem getting a job at the department. Sexual misconduct, including sexual encounters between staffers and detainees, was covered up.
It's inhuman, and sometimes it turns deadly. The newspaper found 12 deaths of youths in detention centers since 2000, including a hanging, a beating by one detainee of another and untreated illnesses. The only thing approaching the outrageousness of the atrocities is that not one employee has gone to prison as a result. In many instances, prosecutors never file charges because of conflicting witness accounts or indecipherable videos from malfunctioning security cameras. With no accountability, kids often get hurt or sometimes killed.
Yet DJJ Secretary Christina Daly responded to the Herald's findings by denouncing the stories instead of promising to make needed reforms. She bragged about the state's juvenile arrest rate and record-low recidivism, which are no defense for the harm that has come to kids in the state's care, but she promised no review of department practices.
A grand jury should provide the independent scrutiny that has been so lacking. Fernandez Rundle says the panel will examine the quality of youth workers both at DJJ and private companies that operate residential facilities on its behalf; treatment of youthful detainees; and accountability measures. She has promised to use her relationships with lawmakers to effect reforms and offered the full resources of her office.
There's no doubt more money needs to be part of the solution. The starting salary for a detention officer at a state-run lockup is $25,479. Some private contractors pay guards $9.50 an hour to watch over troubled juveniles and, in theory, rehabilitate them. For that paltry pay, it's no wonder the industry cannot recruit better candidates and hires people who end up harming kids. Gov. Rick Scott, in his 2018 budget proposal, has recommended a 10 percent pay increase for juvenile detention and probation officers. It's a start, though it won't apply to employees of private contractors.
The kids in Florida's juvenile detention centers cannot be abandoned to the violent culture that has been allowed to fester. Scott has shown little leadership on fixing it, and the findings and recommendations of the Miami grand jury should prod the governor and the Legislature to quit stalling and take action.