A Senate panel on Tuesday will consider two measures that would provide more oversight to the state’s juvenile justice system, which is under scrutiny for its widespread use of unnecessary and excessive force on youth detainees.
Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Pinellas County Republican who chairs a powerful criminal justice committee, is sponsoring both bills and intends to champion a slew of other criminal justice reforms throughout Session.
A pair of those reforms up for debate on Tuesday would make it easier for lawmakers and those appointed to the Florida Correctional Operations Oversight Council to look into specific issues plaguing the youth detainees and their enforcers. These reforms would not apply to private detention centers.
One of the bills (SB 1208) would expand the responsibilities of the nine-member Florida Correctional Operations Oversight Council to include monitoring of daily operations of correctional and juvenile facilities.
Those appointed to the council by the governor, House Speaker and/or Senate President would be tasked with more than just making policy and budget recommendations to the Legislature. Now, they would also be charged with identifying problems in the juvenile system by conducting inspections and interviews and completing an annual report on their findings.
The proposal comes in the wake of the Miami Herald “Fight Club” series which found that over a 10-year period youth care workers would give detainees honey buns and other treats as a reward for beating other youth.
The year-long probe revealed systemic misconduct at the DJJ stemming from inexperienced and underpaid staff, inadequate personnel standards and a high tolerance for cover-ups.
The second bill, SB 1004, aims to add lawmakers to the list of those who can visit any of the 21 juvenile detention facilities “at their pleasure,” and not strictly by appointment. Current state law allows lawmakers and other elected and appointed officials to visit any adult correctional facility “at their pleasure.”
In a letter to members of the Legislature last October, DJJ Secretary Christina Daly said lawmakers who don’t want to go through the appointment process, can visit juvenile centers. But said youth detainees “suffer from previous trauma and interruptions of their daily schedules can be problematic.”
The bill would also prohibit the DJJ from “unreasonably withholding” access to reporters, intending to increase transparency through independent reviews of facilities.