Late last week, a West Palm Beach grand jury dealt a significant blow to the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). It found a young man died under their watch due to “fundamentally inadequate” medical care. You may remember the disturbing story of Eric Perez, who died in custody after having been arrested for possession of a small amount of marijuana while he was on probation.
While incarcerated, Perez reported to guards that he was hallucinating; he vomited and soiled himself in his cell but received no medical attention. It wasn’t until almost an hour after he stopped breathing that anyone from DJJ noticed, and by then it was too late. Apparently, the cause of death was a hemorrhage caused by head injuries. Earlier in the evening, guards joked and engaged in horseplay with Perez and other juvenile offenders while conducting a routine search. Perez was “roughly tossed in the air” and struck his head on the wall or celling. Perez developed painful headaches and loss of balance and struck his head again when he fell into the corner of a table.
Former Miami-Dade Superintendent Dale Dobuler was not surprised when he heard of this incident. Dobuler was brought in as superintendent after a very similar incident occurred in 2003. Dobuler has since left his position and notes that these types of occurrences will continue unless and until there is a change of attitude within the DJJ. He describes DJJ as being “great at firing people,” but unable to solve greater systemic problems.
Marijuana prohibition didn’t kill Mr. Perez. A brutal combination of head trauma and a lack of compassion and competence on the part of the Miami-Dade Juvenile Detention Center staff, guards, and supervisors did that. However, taking another approach to marijuana possession can prevent tragedies like this. MPP’s model bill to end marijuana prohibition and replace it with a system of regulated and taxed adult only use — along with our decriminalization bill — would give law enforcement other tools to use, besides juvenile incarceration, when dealing with a minor in possession of a small amount of marijuana.
Under the provisions of MPP’s tax-and-regulate bill, adults could use marijuana much like they are currently allowed to use alcohol. The bill provides for civil citations, drug education, and community service for minors found with marijuana, as does our decriminalization bill. These bills still penalize juveniles who use or possess marijuana, but they do so in a way that does not involve incarcerating youth. Surely, Mr. Perez would have gotten the medical attention he so desperately needed had he been cited and sent home to his family as opposed to jailed and ignored.