By the end of the summer, Florida will have cut all ties with youth prison contractor Youth Services International, a company that’s been plagued by allegations of abuse and substandard conditions for decades.
Over the years, state after state abandoned their contracts with YSI until the for-profit company was operating only in Florida. But earlier this year, state officials said the company would end all contracts with YSI as the result of a lawsuit.
As new companies take over the contracts, the change raises the question of whether advocates and lawmakers who have fought hard against YSI will continue to examine the use of private, for-profit contractors in juvenile justice.
In Florida, a mix of for-profit and nonprofit companies run all the state’s 57 long-term juvenile facilities.
The issue isn’t likely to drop off the radar screen entirely. YSI’s problems drew attention from lawmakers, the press and the public — and that’s a good thing, said Deborrah Brodsky, director of the Project on Accountable Justice, a criminal justice think tank based at Florida State University.
“This is a larger signal that the winds have changed more broadly, that we as a society expect better,” she said.
State law requires officials to contract with private companies at residential facilities, so the focus is likely to be on oversight and funding for the system, rather than an overhaul that does away with for-profit contractors, those in the field say.
State officials announced in March that the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) would end all seven of its remaining multimillion-dollar contracts in the state because of a whistleblower lawsuit alleging YSI failed to provide appropriate and necessary services and falsified documents related to the terms of the company’s contracts.
YSI disputed the charges.
“While Youth Services International believes there is no merit to this lawsuit, it made the decision to settle the case in an effort to put the four-year litigation in the past and avoid the future cost and distraction of a continued legal defense regarding this matter,” a company spokesman said at the time, according to news reports.
Of the seven facilities formerly run by YSI, Sequel TSI of Florida was scheduled to begin operating four of the facilities in August and early September: Charles Britt Academy, Pompano Youth Treatment Center, Duval Youth Academy and Marion Youth Academy. Rite of Passage was scheduled to begin operating Joann Bridges Academy and Youth Opportunities International was scheduled to begin operating the Broward Youth Treatment Center, both on Thursday.
The state does not plan to enter into a new contract for the seventh facility, Broward Girls Academy. The remaining girls at the program will either finish their treatment plans or be moved to different programs.
Florida has used private facilities for decades and made the move to privatize its long-term facilities entirely in 2013. The state is one of the heaviest users of private facilities in the country, according to the 2015 federal Juvenile Residential Facility Census, which is based on 2012 data.
Other heavy users of private facilities include Alabama and Pennsylvania, while places like Maine, Hawaii and Vermont have few if any juveniles in private custody.
Nationwide, 49 percent of juvenile facilities — both local and state, short-term and long-term — were privately operated, according to the federal census. Those facilities held 31 percent of juvenile offenders. Though there were more local facilities, state facilities held nearly as many youth.
Some advocates and lawmakers question the wisdom of using for-profit providers at all for the juvenile justice system, saying that a profit motive means companies may cut corners, which can lead to inadequate facilities, services and even abuse.
“YSI is part of a systemic problem that Florida and all states should pay attention to, and that’s when you have private for-profit company there are skewed incentives,” said Mishi Faruqee, national field director at the Youth First Initiative, a campaign to end the use of youth prisons.
One way to move away from the use of such companies is for states to invest aggressively in community-based alternatives to incarceration, she said. A shrinking population of juveniles could discourage companies whose main interests are their own bottom lines, she said.
Cathy Craig-Myers, executive director at the Florida Juvenile Justice Association, a trade group that includes the state’s residential facility contractors, said companies that fail to meet muster should be removed from private systems when necessary.
But private facilities can and do meet the needs of juveniles, she said. And they help the state because they’re specialized, nimble and can save the state money, she said.
Accountability is central to a working system, Craig-Myers said.
“The key to successful privatization is that the person who contracts those dollars out knows what they want and monitors the hell out of it,” she said.
In 2011, the state began a comprehensive review of its funding, contract management and oversight practices that has put in place new ways to ensure safety and quality, a DJJ spokeswoman said.
“As the Department contracts with private providers, as required by state law, we work to strengthen our requirements for services to ensure first and foremost that youth are receiving the services they need but also to negotiate for value-added services to further enhance the rehabilitation and treatment of youth,” she wrote in a statement.
As in states across the country, the number of juveniles in Florida’s long-term facilities is dropping. During fiscal year 2012-13, judges sent 3,067 juveniles to residential commitment facilities, a 33 percent drop from 4,585 two years earlier, according to state data.
Brodsky also thinks the continued drop in commitments could change the industry, by opening a path for even more oversight by DJJ. Clear, consistent data coupled with smaller numbers invites scrutiny, she said.
More broadly, the data is likely to highlight whether juvenile residential commitment is working at all, or whether the state should be even more aggressive about moving toward community-based alternatives.
“That’s the more fundamental question to ask. If we’re not getting the outcomes we want at tremendous expense to the taxpayer, we should scrutinize if that’s the system we really want,” she said.
As the numbers drop, another factor the state will have to consider is whether funding is adequate to meet the needs of the youth whose problems or offenses are considered serious enough to require long-term commitment, Craig-Myers said.
“That’s the big question that we have to pitch to the Legislature this year: that we have to reinvest,” she said.
Dave Kerner, a state representative from Palm Beach, said he expects much of the monitoring in the wake of YSI to come from local officials — with the hope that DJJ will provide needed oversight. He doesn’t expect state lawmakers to pay the issue significant attention anytime soon though.
“It’s a very pro-business, pro-privatization Legislature right now,” said Kerner, who’s skeptical about the use of for-profit providers.
In Kerner’s district, that means local lawmakers will continue to track developments at the Palm Beach Youth Academy, a high-risk residential treatment facility for young men that YSI ran until last year.
The company lost their contract there after allegations of abuse and safety risks, and Sequel took over.
Palm Beach Commissioner Shelley Vana, who spearheaded the effort to document abuses at the facility, said she’s continued her regular tours of the facility since the change and is optimistic about what she sees.
And Kerner, who is running to replace Vana (the election is Tuesday) when she is term-limited out of office this fall, has pledged to continue her work.
Officials must stay vigilant on behalf of a vulnerable constituency, Vana said.
“These are kids who don’t vote. Their parents likely don’t vote. They have no voice,” she said.