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State to face class action on juvenile solitary confinement

Flickr Creative Common

A federal judge has cleared the way for a class-action lawsuit against the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice about the use of solitary confinement for minors, including children with disabilities.

The lawsuit was filed in 2019 on behalf of individual juveniles, but U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle last week approved a request to certify it as a class action on behalf of thousands of minors.

Hinkle said department data showed that between 2,720 and 3,853 juveniles were placed in solitary confinement at detention facilities each year from 2014 to 2020. Plaintiffs’ attorneys contend that the use of solitary confinement violates the U.S. Constitution and discriminates against children with disabilities in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and a federal law known as the 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 in the 15-page decision issued 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.”

Plaintiffs’ attorneys from the Southern Poverty Law Center, Florida Legal Services, and the Florida Justice Institute issued statements Wednesday praising the decision.

“We have compelling evidence that state officials have known for years about the damaging effects of solitary confinement but have refused to address them,” Leonard J. Laurenceau, staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, 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.”

The Department of Juvenile Justice fought the request for class certification, saying in a May brief that “behavioral confinement” is constitutional and does not violate the disabilities laws. Attorneys for the department also pointed to varying factors that might cause juveniles to be put into such confinement.

“The decision to confine each youth is made on an individualized, case-by-case basis,” the brief said. “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.”

But Hinkle wrote that the plaintiffs are challenging “practices that are consistently applied to children in department facilities across the state.”

“It is undoubtedly true, as the department asserts, that children are placed in solitary confinement for different reasons and, if properly placed there at all, can properly be kept there for different periods,” Hinkle wrote. “But the plaintiffs challenge the department’s standard for placing children in solitary, not just the standard’s application to each individual. The plaintiffs say the standard itself is flawed. This is a contention that raises common issues and can be answered one way or the other for the class as a whole.”

The named plaintiffs in the case are identified in Hinkle’s decision as G.H., a 15-year-old boy diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, mood disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder, and R.L., a 15-year-old girl diagnosed with conditions such as bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and major depressive disorder. Hinkle wrote that both have been repeatedly placed in solitary confinement in juvenile-detention facilities.

Along with the allegations about violating the disabilities laws, the plaintiffs’ attorneys contend that the department’s practices violate constitutional prohibitions on cruel and unusual punishment. Hinkle has scheduled a trial in September 2022.

Jim Saunders - News Service of Florida