Treatment of kids in jails under scrutiny

Published On: Sep 20 2012 09:19:19 AM EDT

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -

Representatives of the Southern Poverty Law Center, youth advocacy groups and the parents of juveniles in adult county jails will attend Thursday when a panel of the Florida Sheriffs Association meets in Ocala.

They'll be asking the standards review subcommittee of group and the Florida Association of Counties to revise the minimum standards for county jails that detain juveniles in Florida.

The meeting comes in the wake of a five-day hearing before a federal judge in Tampa earlier this month on a class-action lawsuit the SPLC filed in March. It included testimony on a request for a preliminary injunction to halt the use of pepper spray on youth held at the Polk County Juvenile Detention Center, a wing of the county jail.

"What we learned at the federal court hearing is that the jails are not protecting children," said David Utter of the SPLC, which has accused the Polk County Sheriff's Office of mistreating juveniles and not supervising them adequately.

Scott Wilder, a spokesman for Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, said the facility operates in a "fair, safe and secure manner" that saves taxpayers millions of dollars.

"The sheriff's office operates a highly professional facility that we'd stack up against any in the nation," Wilder said. "We look forward to the lawsuit."

The trial is scheduled for May. The SPLC brought the lawsuit in response to a 2011 law, SB 2112, which allows counties to place juveniles in adult jails as long as the facility meets the Florida Model Jail Standards. Those standards are determined by the FMJS committee, replacing those of the state Department of Juvenile Justice.

The new standards prompted DJJ Secretary Wansley Walters to write the sheriffs in August 2011, asking them to reconsider such matters as the use of pepper spray and other chemical agents when dealing with juveniles.

"While it doesn't always appear to be, the population we are dealing with is children," wrote Walters to Marion County Sheriff Ed Dean, then-chair of the FMJS committee. "The restraints and tools used to control adult offenders can affect juveniles much differently, exposing counties to much greater liability."

At Thursday's meeting, the three-person FSA standards review committee will hear proposed revisions. The SPLC said attendees will also testify on the consequences of holding youth in adult facilities.

"Our position is that adult jails are never an appropriate place for children," said Utter.

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