Judge Finds No Merit in Juvenile Detainee Claims

     TAMPA, Fla. (CN) – Juvenile detainees failed to persuade a federal court that a Florida sheriff and jail medical staff denied them adequate care and exposed them to harm during detention.
     A group of juveniles sued Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd and Corizon Health in 2012, alleging 14th Amendment violations during their detention at the Central County Jail in Bartow, Fla.
     The jail’s juvenile detention center houses minors as young as eight, most of whom are awaiting trial, according to the lawsuit.
     The group, who claimed to represent all juvenile detainees affected by the alleged violations, said the sheriff failed to provide them with rehabilitative services during detention. They also claimed the sheriff failed to protect them from harm, used unlawful force and subjected juveniles to “dangerously violent conditions of confinement.”
     Prison officials disregarded the juveniles’ mental health needs and placed them in isolation without justification, while Corizon failed to provide adequate mental health treatment and ignored the detainees’ serious medical needs, the complaint said.
     A federal judge certified the juveniles’ class, as well as two sub-classes, but refused to enter an injunction against the defendants. After a 2013 month-long bench trial, the court concluded that the juveniles could not show that the system and practices at Central County Jail amounted to 14th Amendment violations.
     Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday reviewed the parties’ interpretation of the 14th Amendment as it applies to juvenile detainees’ rights, concluding that the plaintiffs failed to prove that either the sheriff or Corizon were deliberately indifferent to their medical needs or ignored any risk of serious harm.
     “In fact, the conditions of juvenile detention at CCJ are not consistent with the plaintiffs’ dark, grim, and condemning portrayal,” Merryday wrote in the April 16 ruling. “The plaintiffs insist that the level of fighting in juvenile detention at CCJ, say, two ‘fights’ per week, is unconstitutional. But even after immense and determined discovery, litigation assistance by ‘experts,’ and weeks of trial, the plaintiffs’ characterization of the level of violence at CCJ remains wholly impressionistic because the plaintiffs offered no data from comparable facilities. For all that the evidence in this action proves, the two ‘fights’ per week among 80 to 100 teenage detainees living in close quarters at CCJ might constitute a historic high or a historic low.”
     The class filed the lawsuit less than six months after the sheriff opened the juvenile detention facility in Bartow, alleging deliberate indifference to “a widespread and pervasive pattern of substantial risks of serious harm to the juveniles.”
     Given Judd’s lack of experience in running this type of facility, the plaintiffs were not justified in attributing all subsequent improvements in management and operation of the juvenile detention center to an attempt to evade liability, according to the 182-page ruling.
     “Lastly, as anyone who has visited a jail or prison well knows, the lamentable sight of humans deprived of liberty and confined together in a facility – the sight of humans whose life has gone wrong for some reason or reasons and whom the community must restrain or, at least, detain – triggers a strong emotional response,” Merryday wrote. “The sight of a person under 18 in detention, wearing a prisoner’s gown, awaiting a trial, and coming to grips with consequences and circumstances almost always beyond their effective capacity, triggers an even stronger visceral response, including an impulse to rescue the juvenile from the circumstance and from the juvenile’s own poor, even destructive, choices (or those of others). No one wants any of these juveniles to be where they are, to have done what they have done (probably), and to continue on the course they are on.”
     However, it is not up to the courts to determine public resources distribution, the judge noted.
     “The juveniles deserve and should have more – perhaps, quite a bit more – than the constitutionally permissible minimum,” the ruling adds. “Nonetheless, the 14th Amendment is reserved for the protection of a detainee whose circumstance is below the constitutionally permissible minimum, which is patently not the case in juvenile detention at CCJ – despite any intermittent flare-ups, any episodic delays in medical or mental health treatment, any occasional over-reaction or inattention by deputies, and the like. In design and implementation, the overall regulatory program by the Sheriff at CCJ is well above the constitutionally permissible minimum (and safely below perfection).”
     The court found that the “civilized and regulated conditions prevailing at CCJ” were very different from the life-threatening, unconscionable conditions experienced by juvenile plaintiffs in other cases cited in support of the class’s allegations.
     The class failed to show that mental health care for Polk County juvenile detainees was “grossly inadequate” and that detainees were subjected to unnecessary, harmful isolation or to excessive force, according to the ruling.
     The use of pepper spray on juveniles, which was central to the plaintiffs’ argument concerning excessive force, is the most effective way to stop a fight without inflicting an injury, and is mostly used for that purpose at the Polk County detention center, the judge said. The sheriff’s experts testified that pepper spray is effective, precise, and safe but transiently painful, which makes it less dangerous than hands-on force in stopping fights and protecting detainees and staff.
     Likewise, the plaintiffs’ “simplistic formula” failed to establish the defendants were deliberately indifferent to some detainees’ mental health problems, the court found, noting that “a constitutionally compliant program for mental health diagnosis and treatment for inmates in a prison with terms of imprisonment measurable in years or decades is quite different from the details of a constitutionally compliant program for juvenile detainees in Polk County, most of whose detention is measurable in days.”
     Merryday agreed that “the plaintiffs offer a ‘best practices case’ rather than demonstrate that the conditions of juvenile detention under the Sheriff’s administration fall below the constitutional minimum.”
     Although the plaintiffs said two of their experts could testify to the inadequacy of some of the sheriff’s past or present policies, the juvenile detainees’ claims ultimately turn on whether the sheriff’s management of the detention center violates the Constitution, the opinion states.
     The plaintiffs’ contention that the sheriff runs the juvenile detention center as an adult facility, where detainees are often left unsupervised and subjected to “jail-house justice,” is also unsupported by evidence, according to the ruling.
     “Some juveniles at every detention facility (and every other station in life), including at CCJ, have trouble following, or choose to defy, the institutional rules,” Merryday added. “However, the testimony in this case establishes that the deputies and supervisors maintain the overall respect and confidence of most juveniles, and the evidence demonstrates that the detention staff overall interacts confidently and evenly with the juveniles – with the exception of the occasional and inevitable skirmish.”
     The commander of the jail was among those who testified that the deputies, many of whom are coaches, fathers or former teachers, often coach and mentor the detainees.
     Moreover, the detention center passed every inspection for compliance with state and federal guidelines for juvenile detention, according to the ruling.
     The court found that some of the class’s expert witnesses were not qualified to testify on issues such as the use of force at juvenile detention centers, the effects of isolation on juveniles or mental health care needs of minor detainees. The sheriff’s experts, on the other hand, had firsthand law enforcement and corrections experience and had a history of supervising, treating and interacting with juveniles, according to the ruling.
     As for the class’s argument concerning rehabilitative services, the judge said the sheriff has no constitutional duty to “rehabilitate” a pre-trial juvenile detainee, who has not yet been convicted of any crime. The role of short-term detention is to keep both the detainee and the community safe while the juvenile is awaiting trial, Merryday said.
     The class also failed to show that the sheriff deliberately understaffed the detention center or that the facility was inadequately staffed, creating a substantial risk of harm to the detainees, the opinion states.
     The court pointed out that Corizon nurses, who are available round the clock at the detention center, are trained in suicide prevention and identifying mental health needs.
     “During the approximately two years at issue in this action, no juvenile died; only two hospital cases occurred, each treated promptly; and no evidence exists of any serious harm to anyone or any substantial risk of serious harm to anyone owing to any policy or practice or any deliberate indifference to that policy or practice by the Sheriff or Corizon,” Merryday added.
     Moreover, the judge said, recent changes at the juvenile facility, such as the installation of additional cameras for monitoring and improvement of holding areas, render some of the class’s claims moot.
     Among other things, the defendants have made continuous efforts to improve mental health care for detainees. Now each juvenile detainee receives a mental health evaluation within a few days after admission, and high-risk cases are referred for additional mental health assessment, according to the ruling.
     The plaintiffs’ claims of delay or denial of health care are unsupported, as are their claims that juveniles suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder or other injuries as a result of inadequate mental health care while in detention, the court concluded.
     Attorneys for the parties did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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