Federal judge criticizes Florida sheriff for pepper spray, violence against juveniles in county jail

A federal court sharply criticized a Florida sheriff yesterday for using pepper spray on children and for failing to prevent violence at the Polk County Jail in an opinion that advances a Southern Poverty Law Center case against the sheriff.

“The overwhelming view in Florida and the rest of the nation regarding the use of pepper spray in juvenile settings is at odds with Sheriff [Grady] Judd’s practice,” U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark A. Pizzo wrote in a report to the U.S. District Court in Tampa. “He would be wise to develop a plan for reducing the juvenile-on-juvenile violence and limiting the use pepper spray.”

The judge’s report and recommendation came in a lawsuit challenging the treatment of children detained at the Polk County Jail before trial. The lawsuit, describing how children are subjected to inhumane treatment, including the use of pepper spray for even minor infractions like singing and not moving fast enough, was filed last year by the SPLC. The judge recommended to the District Court that the case proceed as a class action lawsuit on behalf of all children detained at the jail. Trial is set for June 3.

“The court’s opinion today recognizes that children are fundamentally different from adults and therefore must be treated differently,” said Tania Galloni, managing attorney for the SPLC’s Florida office. “Polk County and Florida should be leading the country in effective juvenile justice practices that treat children humanely and reduce recidivism – not taking us backward.”

In his report, the judge recommended that an earlier motion for an injunction prior to the trial be denied at this early stage in the case. But that “should be of little solace to Defendants, for Plaintiffs need not show that a tragic event must occur before injunctive relief [after a trial] is appropriate.”

Judd began housing children at the Polk County Jail in Bartow in October 2011, shortly after the state enacted a law allowing county commissions to place children charged as juveniles in adult jails. Though most of the youths arrested in Polk County are charged only with misdemeanors, probation violations, or nonviolent offenses, the sheriff has housed hundreds of children, some as young as 9, in the jail.

Polk County is the only county in Florida so far to detain children and teens charged as juveniles under adult jail standards as opposed to those tailored for juvenile detention. Judd’s treatment of children in his care exemplifies how the legislation, known as SB 2112, has reversed more than 40 years of efforts to create protections for children that adult jails cannot provide. Research shows that placing children in adult jails not only puts them in danger, but also increases recidivism once they are out.

“The bottom line is that children do not belong in adult jails,” Galloni said.

The law firm of Baker and McKenzie is serving as the SPLC’s co-counsel on the case.