Rick Scott Wants to Cut Juvie Prisons. Should Thompson Be First to Go?

In December, Gov. Rick Scott's transition team proposed a massive overhaul of Florida's juvenile justice system, which would eliminate some prisons and put children convicted of misdemeanor offenses in community-based programs, instead of lockups. 

Scott then appointed Wansley Walters -- a reformer with a track record of reducing juvenile arrests and detention in Miami-Dade -- to run the state Department of Juvenile Justice. Walters started a program in Miami to monitor young offenders at home with ankle bracelets.

So where does this leave Thompson Academy, the juvenile detention center in Pembroke Pines where residents allege they've been physically and sexually abused? State Rep. Evan Jenne says it's an obvious target for elimination.

"This is an easy place to start. It's already a lightning rod," says Jenne, who is the Democratic whip in the House. "You can cut 'x' amount of beds right here, right now."

Jenne was part of a group of lawmakers that toured Thompson earlier this month. The 154-bed facility houses teenage boys who are deemed a "moderate risk" to public safety, meaning they "have generally committed serious property offenses and their offending is characterized by frequent and repeated law violations," according to DJJ's website. In other words, these kids may have stolen a car or burglarized a house, but they are not violent felons. 

Inside the facility, Jenne said "the stink of bleach was very, very heavy in the air," and it was obvious the administrators had hastened to prepare for the visit. The kids slept on tiny cots, and most of the windows were painted shut.

The Department of Children and Family Services investigated 13 reports of abuse at the lockup last year -- including an accusation that one boy was twice sexually assaulted by a counselor, and another was choked and slammed into a wall. Although investigators concluded the allegations were "unfounded," Jenne says the issue is not settled. He wants a more thorough, independent look at the allegations.

"The seriousness of the all allegations deserves a thorough, thorough vetting," he says. "If one of these allegations were true, to me, let's pull the plug immediately."

Youth Services International, (YSI), the for-profit company with a $14.8 million contract to run the facility, has faced similar abuse allegations in other states. In the late '90s, YSI's former parent company ran a Pahokee detention center that was lambasted for imprisoning teens longer than necessary.

Parents of Thompson inmates have urged the state to cancel the facility's contract. Jenne says Gov. Scott or Walters are the only ones with the power to make that decision.

"I don't know if we should cancel the contract, but I think we should take a deeper look," he says.