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|Stop housing juveniles in adult jails|
|Monday, 24 October 2011 10:37|
By David Utter for Tampa Bay Online
Earlier this month, Polk County decided to return to a shameful time in our state's history when children accused of delinquent acts were locked in adult jails like hardened criminals.
Thanks to a bill passed by the state Legislature this summer, Florida counties can now place children in adult jails where they will be watched over by sheriff's deputies carrying Mace and Tasers on their belts. Polk is one of the first counties to adopt this practice.
It's a huge step backward for our state.
For more than 40 years, children accused of delinquent acts have been held in the care of the state in separate juvenile facilities. The state's Department of Juvenile Justice, which has been responsible for these children, developed a set of best practices to ensure they were not harmed.
They recognized electronic and chemical weapons should not be part of the standards for working with these youth.
It's unclear why Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd — or any Florida sheriff — would need electronic and chemical weapons when the DJJ didn't need them for decades.
But they now have that option.
It's also unclear why the Florida Sheriff's Association — the primary sponsor of this misguided legislation and home of the misguided standards — ignored the testimony of DJJ officials and others stating that electronic and chemical weapons have no place in juvenile detention.
But they were ignored.
Fortunately, some county leaders want tough safeguards for our children. During a recent meeting in Tampa to discuss whether Pinellas and Hillsborough counties should follow Polk's lead, Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner said that the FSA standards, which allow Tasers and Mace, are a "non-starter." Beckner said that as Hillsborough County examines the issue, it will begin with the DJJ standards as a floor — not the ceiling.
Yet Hillsborough is only one county. The safety of a child held in an adult jail could vary wildly across the state depending on a county's leadership. The same could be said for the safeguards needed to protect the rights of children with disabilities being held in these jails.
But even with the best safeguards in place, we should take little comfort. There's a reason the state removed children from adult jails and placed them in separate facilities more than 40 years ago: It was a response to frequent incidents of children being raped, assaulted and abused while held in adult jails. And there's scarce reason to believe that adult jails have become a child-friendly environment since that time.
National research shows that children held in adult jails are twice as likely to suffer assault, abuse and even death as children held in juvenile facilities. Those findings are especially chilling given that the FSA rejected standards that would have required video cameras to monitor the living quarters where the children will be held in these adult jails.
It should be no surprise that every child advocacy group in the state objected to this legislation. Destroying safeguards that protect children whose lives have gone off track is not progress. We cannot afford reckless policies that turn back the clock and put our children in harm's way. Florida's sheriffs and the FSA do a lot of things right, but holding children in adult jails, where chemical and electronic weapons may be used on them, is clearly wrong.