Florida Juveniles Do Not Belong in Adult Jails

In 2011, the Florida legislature passed a law that set juvenile justice back 40 years. The law, known as SB 2112, allows sheriffs to house young people in adult jails without the protections developed over the years for children in the custody of the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). We, along with other advocates, have predicted that children would be harmed by abandoning decades of standards that recognize that kids are different from adults in several important ways, and that they deserve to be protected under standards clearly recognizing those differences.

Since the law took effect in July, only one Florida county has begun to jail children under standards adopted by the Florida Sheriffs Association (FSA), the entity that governs adult jails, rather than DJJ standards. Polk County, which led the charge to pass SB 2112, was also instrumental in developing FSA standards that allow deputies in the jail to use “physical intervention” and “agency approved chemical and electronic weapons” (including tasers) on detained children. On Feb. 3, at the FSA’s jail standards meeting, the Southern Poverty Law Center submitted testimony from family members of detained youth about the harsh treatment endured by children held in the Polk County jail.

Additionally, the SPLC told the FSA about a recent event regarding the use of a chemical agent against several youths who were engaged in a fight. It was a fight that never should have occurred had the Polk County jail adequately staffed its facility, instead of relying on cameras to supervise children. The use of a toxic chemical agent on children would never have happened had SB 2112 not been passed, and, further, would not happen if children were not confined in adult jails. Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident, and should never happen again.

Since SB 2112’s passage, we have written a letter to Sheriff Ed Dean, chair of the Florida Model Jail Standards Committee suggesting revisions to the standards, collected statements from concerned parents and traveled the state, meeting with communities that oppose county takeovers of juvenile detention. Thousands of individuals in Hillsborough, Okaloosa, Pinellas, and Sarasota counties have signed petitions demanding that their respective counties not allow juveniles to be housed in county jails. We continue to urge the FSA to adopt policies protecting kids, and will pursue every remedy available to protect their safety.