TAMPA – Sometimes, David Utter said, the system works well and doesn’t need to be fixed, particularly if it’s a program aimed at helping kids.
That’s true, he said, for a program now aimed directly at helping troubled juveniles.
“They’re treated like kids,” Utter said. “They get counseling and education. Everything down from the clothes to the food is geared toward kids.”
What Utter is worried about is juveniles being transferred in with adults – to an environment that is radically different, he insists, from what they’re dealing with now.
“For a county commission to decide to do this is penny wise but pound foolish,” Utter said. “What you end up creating in terms of future crime far outweighs the cost savings. The research and the literature on holding kids in adult jails is just very clear – you end up creating less public safety, not more.”
Utter is the policy and legislative director for the Florida Youth Initiative, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The nonprofit civil rights organization, which says it seeks justice for society’s most vulnerable members – including juveniles – has been fighting a new Florida law that allows county commissioners to put sheriffs in charge of juvenile detention facilities, which are now under the direction of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.
Utter said the law would allow sheriffs to transfer juveniles to county jails now reserved for adults – a switch that he said could have disastrous implications for youthful offenders.
“The incidences of rape, other sexual assaults, and violence on juveniles who are in adult facilities far exceeds that of adults,” he said. “The recidivism rate when you transfer a juvenile to an adult facility is much higher, and the reason for the juvenile justice system is to rehabilitate the kids and prevent future crime.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center has joined the NAACP and other community advocates and church leaders to oppose efforts to house children in county-run adult jails. The coalition is trying to build public awareness of the new law, passed by the legislature this summer.
“County commissioners have the power to keep children out of adult jails and from experiencing unnecessary dangers these facilities pose to children,” said Christine Henderson, co-director of the Florida Youth Initiative. “We call upon the leaders of these counties to refuse to warehouse children in adult jails – exposing them to terrifying conditions.”
Utter said he’s concerned that the new law allows sheriffs to bypass different standards and protections established to meet the needs of children in juvenile detention facilities.
“The law was changed to allow sheriffs to take over juvenile detention centers, and every county commission has to approve it,” Utter said. “They also have to provide the funds for the sheriff to do it. We oppose sheriffs doing it, because the standards that were adopted are for adult jails and aren’t protective enough of juveniles. One of the things that we argued for was a prohibition on restraints and tasers. The Department of Juvenile Justice has safely housed kids for over 40 years, and currently do not allow the use of mace and tasers and currently require 24-hour video recording of all the living areas. There’s many other standards that they have that the sheriffs have rejected. We think that for counties to allow sheriffs to take over juvenile detention is a step backwards, and very bad policy.”
The change has been supported by Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, who lobbied for the new policy and announced that on Oct. 1, his office had successfully started operating a new Polk County Juvenile Detention Facility in East Bartow. The juveniles were moved from the State Department of Juvenile Justice’s Polk County Juvenile Detention Center to the new facility a block away.
Judd released a statement noting that this was a cost saving effort for his county.
“Because of the extremely high cost of housing pre-adjudicated juveniles at the state facility, the Board of County Commissioners and I agreed to open a new detention facility for juveniles operated by the sheriff’s office,” Judd said. “We will save taxpayers a minimum of $1.4 million dollars annually, conservatively.”
Judd also said he could safely supervise the juvenile offenders now under his custody.
“I am proud of our highly trained and highly dedicated staff who will safely, securely, and effectively house these juvenile delinquents,” he said. “These are incorrigible kids that the court system says must stay in detention while they await adjudication.”
Before lawmakers approved the change, Judd said, the cost of housing juveniles consisted of a “cost share” relationship between the counties and the DJJ. Each county was billed by DJJ for the number of days that a juvenile gets held in the state-run detention centers.
Polk County paid $3.2 million annually as its share of this expense, Judd said. Polk County Sheriff’s Office can operate its own facility for one third to half these costs, he added, because the new Polk County juvenile detention facility can be run without what Judd said was unnecessary, duplicative, and costly bureaucratic oversight and overhead from DJJ.
The sheriff’s office also noted on its web site that Polk County Sheriff’s Detention Deputies have received “extensive training, development, and education, making them extremely well equipped to provide a higher level of care and custody at a much lower cost. For example, a Polk County Sheriff’s Office Detention Deputy working in juvenile custody areas will have a minimum of 832 hours of training, in addition to 39 hours of annual retraining for every additional year employed, mandatory FDLE (Florida Department of Law Enforcement) retraining, and other optional training that he or she may take. This can be compared to the Department of Juvenile Justice minimum requirement for DJJ Detention Officers: They are required to receive two phases of training comprised of 120 hours each, for a total of 240 total hours.”
Utter isn’t convinced, though, and has been visiting the individual counties to convince commissioners not to support the change.
“This is both a statewide campaign and working with individual counties,” he said. “We just explained the concerns we had and offered help to the counties to come to the right decisions and not give sheriffs these kids. The standards that the DJJ have are 60 to 70 pages long. We first tried to work with the sheriffs associations so the standards they adopted were protective of juveniles. When that failed, we’re now working county to county.
“We’re only going to counties that are interested in this issue, and most of them have rejected it,” he added. “Right now, Polk and Highlands are the only two counties that I know of that support it. We’re looking for other ways to educate the public on this. We hope in a couple of years the legislature sees this is a bad idea. This really was more about one sheriff wanting the money that goes to juvenile justice more than anything. It was for a policy shift that overturned sound juvenile justice policy that we’ve embraced for over 40 years, and it was done without much discussion at all.”
Pastor Moses Brown, founder of the Tampa-based Feed the Children and a member of Pastors on Patrol, added, “It’s appalling that some leaders across the state feel free to cut corners without regard to children’s lives. County leaders must have the courage to say ‘Our kids are worth the effort’ and refuse to cut corners when precious lives are at stake.”
Utter noted that the DJJ was established to create protections for children that adult jails can’t provide.
But Judd noted that the Polk County Sheriff’s Office maintains eight professional independent accreditations, while DJJ has no outside accreditations.
“Accreditation is vitally important to the integrity of an organization,” Judd said. “These are outside, independent, and professional associations that compare our practices with the industry’s best practices. Would anyone want to go to an unaccredited hospital? Would you want to be treated by an unaccredited doctor? Of course not. Professionalism and accreditation matters.”
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