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Investigation shows widespread abuse in Florida juvenile detention

A Miami Herald probe into Florida’s juvenile justice system reveals that guards were provoking incarcerated adolescents to be violent. A recent series by the newspaper, called "Fight Club," shows them beating the teenagers and forcing or bribing them to fight one another. Carol Marbin Miller, a senior investigative reporter for the Miami Herald who co-authored the series, joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    A Miami Herald investigation into Florida’s juvenile justice system depicts a harsh and violent culture for teens behind bars. The story, “Fight Club,” revealed steady beatings by guards who also forced young prisoners to fight each other. The series is based on interviews as well as an in-depth review of documents and surveillance videos. As a result of the reporting, Florida lawmakers have made two surprise visits to juvenile detention facilities to inspect conditions themselves. Miami Herald senior investigative reporter Carol Marbin Miller is one of the authors of the series, and I recently spoke to her about it.

    For people who haven’t seen the report yet, first of all, what did it find?

  • Carol Marbin Miller:

    Well we looked at 10 years’ worth of data that we obtained from the State Department of Juvenile Justice. We found widespread use of unnecessary and excessive force. We found a number of instances in which officers and youth workers outsourced discipline. What they were doing is, offering honey buns and other treats to detainees to get them to beat up other kids who were unruly. We found rampant sexual misconduct and we found that over many years there was a persistent problem of medical neglect.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    How pervasive was this?

  • Carol Marbin Miller:

    Well it’s it’s hard for us to say precisely how widespread it was because we did not have access to all of the reports. What we did was we got a spreadsheet from the state with about 20,000 rows of data and we went through the spreadsheet and we requested cases that looked interesting to us. And in so doing, we found cases of outsourcing of discipline all over the state of Florida and what we read in those reports was remarkably consistent across jurisdictions, where the youths were using the same language. We also found videos that were very disturbing, in which you can see these kids fighting each other with officers or youth workers right there, appearing as if they’re refereeing these bouts.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Now who are these officers? What are their backgrounds?

  • Carol Marbin Miller:

    That’s one of the problems that we identified is the officers in the lockups and the youth workers in the commitment facilities were not professional staff. We drilled down into the background of many of these workers. We found some of them had criminal histories that were not much better than the youths they were supervising. We found there were a large number of men and women who had been hired by either the state or a private provider after they’d been fired for misconduct by a state prison or a local police department.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You detailed so many particular cases where kids were just brutally beaten to within an inch of their life, or in a couple of cases had lost their lives. Have any of these people been charged for criminal misconduct?

  • Carol Marbin Miller:

    There have been a handful of cases where youth workers who used, you know, really egregiously excessive force were criminally charged and a handful of convictions that we saw. With regard to the children who lost their lives, we are not aware of a single instance in which a worker was sent to prison for wrongdoing.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    But what about the Department of Juvenile Justice? What’s their response been?

  • Carol Marbin Miller:

    In the hearings that have been held since we published, they have acknowledged that all of the facts of this series were accurate. They have argued that the Herald was not fair to them. They say that we did not give them adequate credit for some reforms in recent years. We did give them credit, for instance, for the civil citation program that was launched in 2011, in which kids who commit non-violent non-serious offenses can be given the equivalent of a ticket and they have or avoid getting arrested and sent to a youth facility. DJJ also is taking credit for the significant reduction in youth crime. That’s kind of a stretch, however, in that youth crime nationwide has been reduced by greater than 50 percent in the last decade. That’s happened all over the country. We have seen this very significant reduction in youth criminality across the board.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What’s the response been to your articles?

  • Carol Marbin Miller:

    There was a bill filed last week by a couple of lawmakers who want the authority to go into these facilities without giving advance notice to the state. There are other ideas that are being bounced around a couple of Senate committees that have held hearings right after our series ran. One proposal would be to have the equivalent of school resource, resource officers inside every one of these facilities so that you would have an independent set of eyes and ears watching what’s going on, and folks who would be able to report misconduct to an entity separate from the Department of Juvenile Justice.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right. The investigation is called “Fight Club” by the Miami Herald. We’re joined by Carole Marbin Miller. Thanks so much for joining us.

  • Carol Marbin Miller:

    Thanks for having me.

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