Published: Thursday, October 27, 2011 at 12:06 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, October 27, 2011 at 12:06 a.m.
Whether it's seeing movies, driving, smoking, getting a job, joining the military or playing sports, our society sets age requirements to protect children from exposure to adult environments. We set different rules because kids are not adults. We don't want to expose them to adult situations because it would threaten their safety and psychological well-being.
We also recognize these age distinctions in the criminal-justice system — treating juveniles differently than adults. In some circumstances, prosecutors can charge minors as adults, but most often kids are treated as kids when it comes to rehabilitation, sentencing, punishment and detention. The difference in approach is part of the reason Florida spends more than $500 million a year on a Department of Juvenile Justice.
Up until this month, if kids awaiting their day in court were detained, they were housed in facilities designed, built and run for children. DJJ rules, for example, require child-specific programs for education, medical care, nutrition, parental contact and physical activity which are different from those available to adults.
Unfortunately, the Legislature needlessly blurred the lines between kids and adults in the criminal-justice system by passing a law allowing kids as young as 10 years old to be housed for up to 21 days in adult jails while they wait for their hearings. The change was not for juveniles being charged as adults but for kids charged as kids who have not been found guilty of any wrongdoing. And the law also specifically authorizes local jails to use lower, more relaxed standards for detaining children than are allowed by the DJJ.
Even more unfortunate, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, with the blessing of the Polk County Commission, became one of the first to take advantage of this new law when he started housing children in a jail designed, built and managed to house adult inmates.
Children who began occupying Polk's adult jail this month are kept separate from the adult inmates, as state and federal laws require. But research shows that placing children in adult facilities such as this one, even when they are separated from the adults, has a damaging effect on their health, safety and long-term welfare.
That's why the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and child advocates — including a former secretary of the Department of Juvenile Justice — have called on Sheriff Judd to stop putting children in his adult jail.
Our call to keep kids and adults in separate facilities is not based on any specific judgment about conditions in Sheriff Judd's jail, but because adult jails are no place for kids under any circumstance.
Some have argued that keeping children in adult jails is cheaper than sending them to DJJ facilities that can specifically meet their needs.
Once extra training, administrative costs and potential legal liability are counted, however, it may actually cost more to protect children less. And because children sent to adult jails are more likely to return to the community damaged by the experience and more likely to commit crimes in the future, the long term costs may be far greater than we know today.
Children are children — even in jail.
The national trend is to focus on the differences between kids and adults, not push them together. In the past five years, 15 states have changed their laws to remove kids from the adult criminal-justice system, as Florida had done through the DJJ since the early 1990s.
But Polk County is moving the other way.
Until the Legislature closes this loophole, Sheriff Judd and Polk County leaders should protect children in their care, and resume using the expertise and experience of the Department of Juvenile Justice to care for children in custody.
[ Julie Ebenstein is the policy and advocacy counsel for the ACLU of Florida, Miami. ]