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UPDATED: Judge Green-lights Class Action Against Florida D.J.J. for Putting Juveniles in Solitary

— October 28, 2021

The judge approved a request to transform the individual complaint into a class action.

A federal judge has approved a class action against the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice and its solitary confinement practices in juvenile detention centers.

According to The Orlando Sentinel, the lawsuit was first filed in 2019 on behalf of several minors. However, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle has since approved a request to certify the complaint as a class action.

In his ruling, Hinkle observed that up to 3,853 juveniles were placed in solitary confinement each year between 2014 and 2020.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs assert that that the use of solitary confinement, especially on children with disabilities, violates the United States Constitution, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the federal Rehabilitation Act.

“To be sure, the plaintiffs have not proven that all — or even any — of these individuals were unconstitutionally placed in solitary confinement,” Hinkle wrote on Friday. “But parties seeking class certification need not establish at the outset that they will ultimately prevail on the merits. It is enough that the plaintiffs have a substantial claim that the department’s custom, if not its ostensible policy, is to place children in isolation unnecessarily and to subject them to unconstitutional conditions.

“If the plaintiffs’ view of constitutional law ultimately wins out — it might or might not — the department’s method for deciding whether to place a child in solitary confinement will change for all these thousands of children, as will the conditions of their confinement.”

Jail cell; image by Ichigo121212, via Pixaby, CC0.
Jail cell; image by Ichigo121212, via Pixaby, CC0.

Leonard J. Laurenceau, a staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said his organization has evidence showing that Florida Department of Juvenile Justice officials continued to isolate juvenile offenders even after seeing evidence that such strict disciplinary measures have damaging effects.

“We have compelling evidence that state officials have known for years about the damaging effects of solitary confinement but have refused to address them,” Laurenceau said in a statement. “We will also prove that the way Florida uses solitary confinement constitutes discrimination against children with disabilities in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.”

However, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice has contested the SPLC’s claims, saying that it uses “behavioral confinement” on a case-by-case basis and in a way which complies with state and federal law.

“The decision to confine each youth is made on an individualized, case-by-case basis,” the department wrote in a brief. “The constellation of variables that go into a decision to place a youth in confinement and what a certain youth experiences while in confinement make it impossible to have a class. Each confinement would have to be individually examined, which does not lend itself to sweeping generalities by looking at numbers alone.”

Hinkle noted that the lawsuit challenges the standard the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice uses to place children in solitary confinement, rather than the standard applied to the individual plaintiffs.

Since an unfair standard would affect every child placed in solitary confinement, Hinkle approved the request for class certification.

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: the original rendition of this article mistakenly named the defendant in the action as the Florida Department of Corrections. However, this litigation was filed against the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice]


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