After 'Fight Club' Revelations, Florida Passes Juvenile Justice Reforms
By Carol Marbin Miller
For the first time in a decade, Florida juvenile detention and probation officers will see a bump in their salaries -- an increase in the state budget that is part of a series of juvenile justice reforms passed by the Legislature this month.
The 10 percent across-the-board pay raise for lockup and probation officers was included in the Department of Juvenile Justice's $589.4 million 2019 spending plan, which was signed by Gov. Rick Scott last week. The pay raise was the signature item in a handful of budget requests by DJJ following a Miami Herald investigation, called Fight Club, into agency failures. The budget includes $2 million in "retention bonuses" for direct-care staffers at privately run juvenile programs, where the pay can start under $20,000, in addition to the raises for state employees.
State Sen. Jeff Brandes, who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice, and shepherded the budget items and legislation, said efforts to reform the state's juvenile justice system will take at least a couple of lawmaking cycles, especially given the financial constraints of this year's session, which was shattered by the Valentine's Day massacre on the campus of a Parkland high school.
Much of this year's effort consisted of a series of budget moves, including:
-- An $8 million appropriation that will raise the salaries of all detention and probation officers, together with $2 million in one-time bonuses for direct-care workers at the state's 53 privately run residential centers.
"The first thing we wanted to do was raise salaries to attract better people," said Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican. "If we can only pay officers $12 an hour, we're going to get $12-per-hour employees. We've got to get to a number where we can get higher-caliber employees."
-- A $1 million investment in new video surveillance equipment intended to replace aging, unreliable cameras and recording devices with more modern technology. Brandes said the surveillance upgrades will improve "transparency" among officers and youth workers.
-- An additional $5.3 million to improve building maintenance and plumbing within the state's 21 regional detention centers.
-- An increase in new beds, which will "provide necessary treatment and rehabilitative services to youth," DJJ said. The 60 new beds will cost $6.1 million.
-- Another $9.1 million to expand agency prevention and early intervention programs designed to keep troubled kids out of the juvenile justice system.
The new dollars were surprising in the midst of an unexpectedly tight budget year brought on by a shortfall in revenues from corporate income taxes, and an increase in Medicaid enrollment. Lawmakers also decided to set aside $400 million in new spending on school security and mental health after a troubled 19-year-old brought an AR-15 rifle into the campus of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on Feb. 14, killing 17 students and educators. The Department of Corrections' total budget, for example, "was reduced by 3.6 percent by the underfunding of inmate health services and other budget reductions," said agency spokeswoman Michelle Glady.
"The challenge we had with the budget overall was Parkland," Brandes said.
In addition to the new spending, lawmakers also passed two new laws intended to improve conditions for delinquent youth.
Last week, Scott signed a law that allows members of the Legislature, prosecutors and public defenders to make surprise inspections of the facilities. That law was filed after lawmakers, touring South Florida detention centers in reaction to the Herald investigation, declared conditions to be "deplorable."
The measure, which passed both the Senate and the House of Representatives unanimously, also includes an unusual provision: "The department may not unreasonably withhold permission to visit a facility ... from a person who gives sufficient evidence that he or she is a bona fide reporter or writer." The law was sponsored by Brandes in the Senate, and in the House by Rep. David Richardson, a Miami Beach Democrat who has used a similar provision in state law to make routine, unannounced inspections of adult prisons.
Brandes said the idea came from Richardson, whom he credited with making untold numbers of visits to Florida prisons, which have made "a significant impact on how he sees the world." He said the bill will also allow legislators, through their unique role, to go into DJJ facilities to observe how they are working.
"We are not just the mouth of the people," he said. "We are the eyes and ears as well."
Richardson said he approached DJJ Secretary Christina K. Daly with the idea of expanding the surprise inspection law to juvenile facilities shortly after the Herald's series was published. "We didn't get any pushback on that from the department," said Richardson. "That was not an item they raised any objections about."
Daly, he said, "didn't want people showing up in the middle of the night. He added: "I would not have wanted to do that anyway." The law allows visits from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m., he said. Inspections at other times might be permissible, depending on the circumstances.
Brandes said Monday he hoped that ensuring access to DJJ facilities among lawmakers and journalists would improve transparency within the agency, leading to better conditions. When told the governor had already signed the law, Brandes said "we'll be scheduling tours. We'll be headed out there."
Lawmakers also passed a bill sponsored by Brandes that will require every judicial circuit in the state to implement a civil citation program. The citations, which were pioneered in Miami, are designed to divert first-time, non-serious offenders out of the juvenile justice system. A youth issued a citation by a police officer or deputy is required to appear later before a judge. Typically, the youth then is ordered, among other things, to perform community service, make restitution or write an apology letter.
Much of the legislative action is a response to Fight Club, published by the Herald on Oct. 15. The six-part series examined pervasive violence within juvenile lockups and residential programs -- some of it instigated by workers and rewarded with treats -- widespread sexual misconduct, medical neglect and lax personnel practices that encouraged the hiring of unqualified workers with unsavory pasts. The series showed that DJJ administrators long had tolerated a culture of cover-up that allowed abuse and misconduct to fester.
Scott, who had not sought pay raises for youth workers during his two four-year terms, requested the 10 percent salary hike for lockup officers after the Herald reported that the starting salary for a detention officer at a state-run lockup is $25,479.22. Such a worker with a spouse and a child would qualify for food stamps.
And though the governor did not request more money for employees of private providers -- most of them are paid even less than their state counterparts -- an association of the private companies, many of which are for-profit, appealed directly to the Legislature for additional dollars. The pleas appear to have been partially answered by the one-time bonuses.
The pay raises, Daly said in a statement, "will give the department the ability to hire and retain dedicated, high-quality staff."
Brandes said budget constraints precluded lawmakers from approving a significant, recurring pay hike for private workers. He said he intends to seek additional dollars in next year's session.
Scott's request for millions in new maintenance dollars was made after several state lawmakers, all Democrats, took tours of the Miami-Dade and Broward lockups in the weeks after the Herald series was published. Though state law did not specifically allow unannounced tours at the time, DJJ's top administrators agreed to permit the legislators to interview some detainees and observe the facilities.
The inspections turned up a variety of shortcomings. Lawmakers said the facilities were plagued by broken toilets, peeling paint and leaking sewage -- and reports obtained by the Herald confirmed that needed maintenance had been long overdue in some buildings.
"The detention center we went inside in Miami-Dade was in pretty bad shape -- in worse shape than most of the prisons I've inspected," Brandes said.
The new maintenance money, Daly said, "ensures that Florida's juvenile detention and residential facilities are safe and healthy environments for youth and staff."
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