The Southern Poverty Law Center and community members urged county leaders at Florida's Hillsborough County Juvenile Justice Task Force meeting today not to adopt juvenile detention policies similar to those of Polk County, where an SPLC lawsuit has been filed against the sheriff who houses children charged as juveniles in an adult jail.
The coalition also asked Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner to bring the matter of juvenile detention before the county commission for full consideration and public discussion.
"The abuse suffered by the children in Polk County jail should serve as a cautionary tale for Hillsborough County and other Florida counties considering housing children in the juvenile justice system in adult jails," said Tania Galloni, managing attorney for the SPLC's Florida office. "Incarcerating children in adult jails is bad public policy that fails to improve public safety, inflicts immense harm on vulnerable children, and exposes taxpayers to tremendous legal liability."
The SPLC filed a federal lawsuit against Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd last month for regularly subjecting children held at the county's adult jail to abuse, neglect and violence — including the placement of children in a cage for punishment. The lawsuit also describes how the sheriff fails to provide youth with adequate educational and rehabilitative services.
Polk is the only Florida county thus far to detain youth charged as juveniles under Florida Sheriffs' Association standards rather than Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) standards.
Amy Gage, whose son is currently in the Polk County jail, shared her experience with members of the task force. "I am in constant fear for my son's safety because the jail doesn't have appropriate supervision of the youth. They use cameras to monitor the children, and fights have gone on for long periods of time before anything was done," Gage said. "I urge you to keep the current DJJ-run detention center open and refuse to hold children in adult jails."
Last spring, Florida lawmakers passed Senate Bill 2112, which allows counties to place children in the juvenile justice system in adult jails. It removed key aspects of existing law, namely the requirement that counties taking over juvenile detention must adhere to DJJ standards and pass inspections by the Department of Juvenile Justice. The DJJ standards provide protections to meet the unique needs of children.
Marilyn Williams, a concerned Tampa resident, asked Hillsborough County leaders to think twice before placing children charged as juveniles in adult facilities. "Just look at what is happening to the children in Polk County," Williams said. "Children as young as 8 years old are witnessing violence and are being held in isolation. Guards are punishing kids by spraying them with harsh chemicals for minor violations. We don't want that in Hillsborough County."
National research shows that children held in adult jails are twice as likely as children held in juvenile facilities to suffer assault, abuse, and even death. As a result, states across the country have passed legislation prohibiting the placement of children in adult jails. Sheriff Judd's treatment of children in his care exemplifies how SB 2112 has reversed decades of juvenile justice efforts in Florida to create protections for children that adult jails cannot provide.
"Children simply don't belong in adult jails," Galloni said. "We disagree that any child should be held in an adult jail, but if a county decides to take over juvenile detention, they should do so under DJJ standards and oversight."