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Sen. Jeff Brandes: We need a 'deep dive' after Herald investigation into Department of Juvenile Justice

Fight Club Emily MichotThe lawmaker who oversees a powerful criminal justice committee said he will spearhead a much-needed reform of the state’s juvenile justice system in the wake of a Miami Herald series that detailed the existence of a mercenary system in which detainees are given honey buns and other treats as a reward for pounding other youths.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who is the new chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice, said he believes the state is ripe for reform. “It gives me pause. There is a lot of work that can be done,”' Brandes said at a meeting of the committee Wednesday. “There are going to be many tough questions that we're going to be going through in the next committee weeks.”

On Tuesday, the Herald published a six-part series, Fight Club. Among the findings: the widespread use of unnecessary and excessive force; officers and youth workers who outsource discipline by appointing goons; a high degree of sexual misconduct by staff, some of which goes unreported; and the propensity of employees to neglect the medical needs of teens, often calling them fakers.

One of the root causes of such misconduct, the Herald found, is the low pay of youth workers. The state offers starting detention officers $12.25 an hour to protect and supervise youths. That’s $25,479.22 a year for a new recruit. Private contractors who oversee programs where detained teens serve their sentences often pay less than that. TrueCore Behavioral Solutions, the largest provider, offers new hires $19,760.

Brandes said he supports a proposal by the agency and Gov. Rick Scott to hike the salary of detention center officers, saying “there is a systemic problem at the Department of Corrections and the Department of Juvenile Justice on salaries.”

“There's no reason we're paying people to watch these kids less than I'm paying my babysitter at home to watch my three kids,” Brandes said. “Many of these circumstances are much more difficult and so we need to look at that and probably do an entire review of the system based on this report.” More here. 

Related: Fight Club: Dark secrets of Florida’s Juvenile Justice system

Photo: Berlena Sheffield's grandson, Andre, 14. died of untreated bacterial meningitis — only one victim of poor treatment in Florida’s juvenile justice system. He got sick while at Brevard Regional Juvenile Detention Center. Berlena holds a memorial photo of her grandson and displays other favorite photos and letters from him at her Jacksonville home. Emily Michot