For the last two years, the Miami Herald has been looking into systemic abuse within the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), the division designed to rehabilitate minors who get into trouble with the law.
That investigation, titled Fight Club, comes out on Tuesday Oct. 10.
Miami Herald senior investigative reporter Carol Marbin Miller spoke with WLRN’s Wilson Sayre about the project, which has uncovered widespread abuses and a punitive approach that isn't in line with the DJJ mission to rehabilitate and prevent juvenile crime.
Below is an edited excerpt of their conversation:
WLRN: What is the Department of Juvenile Justice supposed to do in a state like Florida?
MARBIN MILLER: The Department of Juvenile Justice has sort of conflicting imperatives. On the one hand, they are tasked with treating very troubled kids and rehabilitating them. The majority of these kids come into the system having experienced trauma. A good number either have serious mental illness or they are developmentally disabled. And so one of the real imperatives of the program is to give these kids the treatment they need to continue life without offending.
But there's also this strain that remains, of these kids are criminals and they need to be punished.
What prompted this deep dive into the Department of Juvenile Justice?
In August of 2015 a youth at the lockup in Miami was beaten to death. Somewhere between a dozen and 16 kids attacked Elord Revolte. We reported that and we started getting calls from people who were familiar with the culture of juvenile detention and the juvenile justice system as a whole.
One of the things that we had been told again and again was that officers and youth-care workers were paying young people in honey buns and other treats as a reward for dispensing discipline on other unruly youth. And we had reason to believe, based upon what we were hearing, that that might have been what resulted in Elord’s death.
The list of abuses and wrongdoing you uncovered was extensive in the Department of Juvenile Justice. What did you find?
One of the most troubling things we found is that Florida is plagued by widespread use of unnecessary and excessive force. Sometimes the restraints are entirely proper; sometimes ‘restraint’ is a very charitable word for what goes on. Youth are punched and thrown to the ground.
What leads to this culture that allows for these unnecessary and often excessive restraints?
One of the things that's happening is that the state completely privatized all of the correctional facilities. Now, the detention centers are a police power of the state and they cannot be privatized. But when a kid is sentenced, they go to these so-called "commitment facilities" and every one of them is operated by a private provider. Most of them are for-profit.
They essentially police themselves. When we started to look at who these people are who work within these facilities, No. 1, they are terribly paid. The workers who are hired are not well vetted, or were not. Near the end of our investigation, DJJ wrote a memo saying "we've got to do a better job of vetting the people that we hire." Though that memo does not apply to the private providers, because they're not contractually obligated to abide by that sort of new policy.
So we found some of these workers had histories that were not a whole lot better than the kids they were supervising.
What doesn't make sense anymore is continuing to operate under a punitive philosophy when other states have embraced more of a rehabilitative approach and are finding success in doing so. Florida has not moved in that direction yet.