Florida's juvenile justice system under scrutiny in legislature
Tom Flanigan (2011-04-01)
TALLAHASSEE, FL (WFSU) - As they are in the realm of the adult justice system, Florida lawmakers are
trying to figure out ways to cut the cost of juvenile justice. Tom Flanigan reports some people who know that
system well, including a former victim of the system, are watching that discussion closely.
Robert Straley was thirteen when he was sent to the Florida School for Boys in Marianna. Now, some fifty
years later, the memories of what happened to him and the other boys who were there at the time, remains
vivid and terrifying. He says there were merciless beatings, unspeakable brutalization, and the stories about
what happened to those boys who suddenly disappeared, never to be seen again.
"I was changing clothes in a little linen closet and it was rainy. Two guards came in up the steps and stood
right where I was on the other side of the door and they were talking about the boy who had just ran. And
one of them said, Yeah, there's no telling how many of those boys are out there buried in that swamp.' And I
just froze, you know. I didn't want them to know I'd heard them say that."
Straley is a co-founder of the White House Boys Survivors Organization. It's named for the grim,
whitewashed building on the grounds of the Florida School for Boys, now called the Dozier School for Boys.
The survivors say that's where the worst abuse took place.
"And they got away with that and you wonder why. Basically, the reason why was when we all got out of
there, not only were we traumatized very badly from being so young and being beaten so severely, you
didn't want to say anything because you were afraid you'd somehow end up back in there and they would
find out you had talked. Then your life wouldn't be worth a dime."
And it's not only Staley's opinion. Jon Jefferson based his best-selling crime novel "The Bone Yard" on the
horror stories he kept uncovering about the Marianna boys' school.
"The number of lashes that these boys received was just astonishing. Some of these boys that were beaten,
flogged, were as young as 8 or 10 years old. Some of them received a hundred or more lashes with this
heavy leather strap. I mean, it's the sort of thing that cannot help but have killed some boys over the years."
The tales of terror have been so persistent and compelling that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement
did a forensic investigation at the school in 2009. It found no conclusive evidence of murdered boys. But
both Straley and Jefferson believe the bodies are elsewhere. In more recent times, the State of Florida has
adopted a somewhat less violent, but some say still cruel approach to juvenile justice. Right after the
infamous tourist murders in the early 1990s, Florida began prosecuting more juveniles as adults. Many
former misdemeanors became felonies. Schools adopted "zero tolerance" policies that treated minor
offenses as serious crimes. And lockup in juvenile detention facilities was often the first response, rather
than last resort. Florida State Professor of Criminology and Human Rights Dan Maier-Katkin thinks these
policies are not only an overreaction, but also overly expensive.
"This is money that could be invested in education, research centers and creating jobs and providing
opportunities. And nothing positive comes out of spending it this way and nothing positive happens for the
Because, Maier-Katkin says, it's in the nature of young people to sometimes do what they're not supposed
"Kids are always getting into trouble. We got into trouble when we were kids. Our kids get into trouble.
Mostly, kids outgrow it and what happens to kids who get caught and put into the juvenile justice system is
that it's made almost impossible for them to outgrow it."
But it may soon be a bit easier for Florida youngsters to keep from getting sucked into the system. That's
because there are a number of juvenile justice reform bills now percolating through the legislature. One
would expand the roll of teen courts, instead of adult judges, to deal with minor infractions. Another would
set up a system of community-based controls for kids who get out of line, rather than automatically locking
them up in juvenile detention facilities. Vicki Lukis has had first-hand experience in a lockup herself. She's
the former Lee County Commissioner who spent more than a year in federal prison, convicted of honest
services fraud. Today, with that conviction overturned, she's a criminal justice consultant with the Pew
"Well, I think that it's never too late to admit that we may have been wrong and I think, from a conservative
perspective, we're now learning that conservatives are saying, we didn't get the results we thought we were
going to get through all of these kinds of initiatives that locked people up more often and treated people like
criminals, particularly young kids."
Conservatives now have a politically agreeable reason to make those changes, Lukis says. Not only
because they fit right in to their goals of less government spending, but because the changes will do the job
"There should be no political I mean, there should be no politics. This should really be a science. And I think
that most of these people have felt like they would be seen in their hometowns and by their constituencies
as soft on crime'. But in fact, it's smart on crime and now we're learning from the conservatives in
Washington that it's actually right on crime'. So, good Lord, who could argue with that?"
One person who certainly doesn't argue with that is Robert Straley, who suffered under the Florida juvenile
justice system of half-a-century ago.
"Get these kids out of these youth-run prisons that are run by corporations and get them into something
better; more specialized where someone can be there to mentor them and guide them. That sort of thing."
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