05/08/2012

One Florida County Wisely Says No to Putting Children in Adult Jails

Last spring, Florida lawmakers passed Senate Bill 2112, which allows counties to place children charged as juveniles in adult jails. Under this law, counties overseeing juvenile detention no longer have to adhere to the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) standards developed over many years to protect the unique needs of children.

In spite of the radical change this law represents, SB 2112 was passed without a single substantive committee hearing about the harmful impact it will have on some of Florida’s most vulnerable children. Only the Senate Budget Committee, chaired by powerful Polk County Sen. J.D. Alexander, heard the bill, and no evidence was presented as to why this would be good policy.

The bill was also pushed by another powerful politician – Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd. Sheriff Judd not only persuaded Alexander to sponsor the bill, he talked the Polk County Commission into allowing him to place pre-disposition youths in the county’s adult jail under standards developed by him and the Florida Sheriffs’ Association rather than the standards developed by the DJJ. Sheriff Judd then took to the airwaves to encourage other Florida counties to follow in his footsteps, touting all the money he claimed to be saving the citizens of Polk County.

Not everyone is buying Sheriff Judd’s message.

Last week, the Okaloosa Board of County Commissioners said “No, Thanks!” to placing children in adult jails. The commissioners wisely decided to leave youth detention where it belongs – with the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.

Okaloosa County reached this decision after considerable deliberation. County officials conducted an open and transparent feasibility study that included input from the community and children’s advocates. After taking a hard look at the facts, they decided that if they were to detain children humanely, putting them in adult jails would not save money.

Okaloosa County officials will continue to look for ways to save taxpayer dollars but have concluded that housing young people in adult jails would only hurt the community in the long run. Meanwhile, Polk County continues to scrimp on staffing, safety and services, putting children’s health, safety and futures at risk.

Florida’s other counties should follow Okaloosa’s lead. Moreover, the Florida Legislature must reevaluate SB 2112. The law was not only passed through a deeply flawed process, but it is bad policy for the state’s children and communities.

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