Speaking to a Senate panel Monday, Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Christina Daly didn’t address many specifics from “Fight Club,” a Miami Herald series detailing a dozen deaths of youths in DJJ custody.
But Daly did discuss reforms in place at the department to curb a repeat of those incidents.
“I’m not here to deny, defend or diminish any of the tragic incidents that have transpired, but I am here to give you the full story,” said Daly, who has served with DJJ since 2007 and took over as the agency’s secretary in 2015.
Even though she didn’t attempt to rebut or refute any of the Herald’s claims, she felt the series mischaracterized the department, saying much of the positive progress made under her (and predecessor Wansley Walters) was ignored in favor of dredging up salacious stories.
The Herald had examined 10 years’ worth of DJJ records, investigations, surveillance videos and more, including an extensive question-and-answer session with Daly herself.
While the incidents detailed by the newspaper were indeed troubling, Daly told senators that “nothing that was reported by the Miami Herald was unknown to us or a surprise to us” and those cases represented only a tiny fraction of the 570,000 youth served by the department over the past decade.
Despite that stance, Daly took steps in response to the series, most notably a push to start an “Office of Youth and Family Advocacy” within DJJ, which will include an in-house ombudsman who will report directly to the agency’s secretary.
In her Monday presentation to the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, she detailed the scores of reforms put in place during her and Walters’ tenures, ranging from improving employee oversight to bolstering youth crime prevention.
“We hit the ground running and have been fast and furious over these past seven years,” Daly said, later adding she “will not let a newspaper series overshadow the progress that has been made.”
According to Daly, those reforms are starting to bear fruit: The crime rate among Florida youth has dropped by 37 percent since 2010, and the state has also seen a sharp drop in the number of children arrested or placed in DJJ custody.
The arrest rate for girls, in particular, dropped by more than half.
Lawmakers on the Senate Criminal Justice Committee were generally receptive to her account of forward progress, though Democratic Sen. Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth was pointed in his line of questioning, especially about the “satisfactory” assessments received by a number of the facilities described in the Herald report.
“Why are those providers, who are making a heck of a lot of money from the state of Florida, getting these satisfactory reviews?” he asked, adding he’d like Daly to ballpark the number of corrective actions that took place at the facilities covered by the article.
Daly could only say “it varies,” and blamed the more heinous incidents taking place at DJJ facilities on a handful of bad apples.
“There are bad people out there — we do our screenings, we do our background checks, and sometimes those bad people make their way into the system,” she said.
Clemens—the Senate Democratic Leader-designate—said that he was concerned about poor-performing contractors, not just individuals, and asked what DJJ was doing to stop such contractors from simply reorganizing under a different name to re-secure lucrative state contracts.
“The facilities tend to come and go, yet they always seem to have the same people at the helm,” Clemens said. “It’s a concern to me that when we have bad actors that we’re not just replacing them with the same people.”
Daly said the department does their due diligence on contractors as well, though some slip through.
About the only thing Daly said she was looking for from lawmakers were pay increases for entry-level detention facility staff at the department, a $12.25 an hour job that has had a 60 percent turnover rate in recent years, leading to the vast majority of level-one officers on the floor having less than one year of experience.
Daly told the committee that this was the first time she had lobbied the legislature in search of a pay raised for entry-level workers at her department.
Gov. Rick Scott is also pushing for the raise — 10 percent in his plan — as a way to keep more experienced and higher-performing staff in the department.
That proposal is set to be explored in greater depth Wednesday, when Daly is set to give a presentation to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice.