Allegations of wrongdoing in the state’s juvenile prisons could be sealed from public view under a bill considered yesterday by a House subcommittee
Witnesses representing the state Department of Juvenile Justice, which requested the bill, said it was intended to protect children in custody from possible retaliation for reporting gang or other criminal activity.
The current version of the bill, though, makes no mention of gangs or juvenile crime. Rather, it would exempt from disclosure “the information provided by children who report abuses or wrongdoing in the juvenile justice system,” unless the child or his or her representative consent in writing.
An earlier version of the bill would have taken secrecy a step further, classifying “investigation reports and intelligence data” about alleged abuses and wrongdoing as “confidential state secrets” that would be exempt from the Open Records Act. Only the DJJ commissioner could declassify them.
Full disclosure: I stumbled across this bill by accident, having shown up at yesterday’s subcommittee hearing just to take pictures of its members. Within half an hour, I was testifying about the bill — certainly a first for me in 40 years of news gathering. But my experience a year ago in reporting a couple stories about alleged DJJ wrongdoing for the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, I thought, might help the lawmakers decide how to proceed.
Whitney Bonds, then 16, had claimed that guards put another girl up to attacking her. DJJ regarded the allegations as totally bogus, and one official mocked me for giving any credence to them. A guard was later fired, though, for failing to stop the attack, and two others disciplined for unrelated violations.
Whitney’s mother, Haley, put us on to the story. She related what her daughter told her about threats from another girl and a supervisor’s inaction when Whitney, just minutes before the attack, predicted she would be assaulted when she returned to her cellblock.
Haley Bonds would certainly have provided written consent to make DJJ’s investigative file public. But that circumstance, under the bill as currently drafted, would be the exception. Given the confidentiality accorded juvenile detainees, reporters rarely would know who to ask for permission to review an investigative file.
Regardless of their validity, the public has a right to know about accusations like Whitney’s and how the department handles them. The solution to gang retaliation against jailhouse snitches, it seems to me, is not sealing reports of wrongdoing by DJJ staff (particularly when the the bill, as I read it, could leave a juvenile’s report about gang activity subject to disclosure under the Open Records Act).
Linking this particular problem to this particular fix seems, shall we say, misguided. Sealing off allegations of wrongdoing protects the wrongdoers, not the kids.
Journalists see this pattern often. When the Division of Family and Children Services won’t release files on kids who die in its care, its caseworkers and managers benefit. When police internal investigations drag on for years with no resolution, the accused officers win — particularly if they’ve been “suspended with pay” for the duration.
Rep. Alex Atwood, the subcommittee’s chairman, asked me if I had any suggestions on amending the bill to address my concerns.
If you’re concerned about gang retaliation, I’d say you should redraft the bill so it’s specific to reports of gang activity.
And while I understand wanting to keep an informant’s identity confidential, I see no need to seal allegations of official misconduct.
That would protect someone else altogether.
Footnote: S.B. 69 passed the Senate last month on a 51-0 vote. The subcommittee today referred the bill to the full House Juvenile Justice Committee but will work on substitute language in the interim.