Editor’s note: Carol Marbin Miller of the Miami Herald and Audra Burch, who has since joined the New York Times, won the Florida First Amendment Foundation’s Lucy Morgan Award for Open Government Reporting for a series called “Fight Club,” an investigation that exposed savage and systemic abuses against youths in Florida’s juvenile justice system. What follows, a call to action on public records, are excerpts of Marbin Miller’s acceptance speech.
You do not have to be an investigative reporter to know that the open government laws in Florida — and watchdog journalism everywhere — are under siege.
Fight Club was two years in the making. That’s a commitment that is increasingly rare as staffs shrink and profit margins decline.
Like a lot of accountability journalism, Fight Club started small. When we learned that a teenager likely had been beaten to death on the orders of a youth officer, we were determined to figure out exactly what had happened, and whether what happened was an aberration, or part of a pattern.
Our review of several thousand pages of inspector general reports led us to a man named Uriah Harris. Harris had repeatedly used a broom handle to beat good manners into teenagers who cussed at the Avon Park Youth Academy. His Florida criminal history was stunning: Harris had been arrested 11 times, including for such offenses as resisting arrest, domestic violence, aggravated battery and child neglect.
Harris became an important character in Fight Club, but he was not the only person with a deeply disturbing criminal history who had unfettered access to teenagers we are supposed to be protecting and rehabilitating in our billion-dollar juvenile justice system.
But if Senate Bill 690 is signed into law this session, the arrest records of Uriah Harris, and as many as a million other Floridians, will vanish from our sight. [READ MORE]