TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- A boy named J.P. tells a disturbing story about mistreatment going on in the Polk County jail and two state lawmakers say it shows Florida's juvenile justice system is broken.
But Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said the accusations "are just not true."
Sen. Arthenia Joyner of Tampa and Rep. Mia Jones of Jacksonville say J.P.'s story demonstrates a law passed in 2011 must be repealed. The law allows sheriff's offices to lock up juveniles in adult jails.
On Thursday, protesters at the state Capitol carried signs that read, "Don't Lock Me Up," "Don't Mace Me," and "Build Us Up, Don't Lock Us Up."
Joyner and Jones say Polk County is inappropriately using pepper spray and Tasers on kids, and subjecting them to physical and mental abuse.
J.P. was 17 when he was locked up in the Polk County Jail last year. In one incident, he said he was beaten up by other juveniles and then pepper sprayed by guards even though he pleaded with them to stop because he had asthma.
"I couldn't breathe. I have asthma. I let the Polk County jail staff, the nurses and everybody, I let them know I have asthma and I still got pepper sprayed. I couldn't breathe. I was throwing up and I was asking for help, actually begging for help, for somebody to help tell me how to diffuse the situation to make me feel better. But all I got was, 'Do you want some more.'"
Dale Landry of the NAACP said J.P.'s story reminds him of Martin Lee Anderson, who died in 2006 after being punched and kicked by guards at a Bay County juvenile boot camp. Anderson's death resulted in a complete restructuring of Florida's juvenile justice system, but Landry said the system is broken once again as J.P.'s story shows.
"This young man had asthma and was sprayed. I didn't know this. Martin, they claimed had sickle cell and it killed him. Only by an act of God this young man is alive. We got to stop it."
Sen. Joyner said kids are placed in jails even when they commit misdemeanors and that's inappropriate. She said it increases the possibility that they'll return to the criminal justice system.
"Think about it these kids, our children, most of them arrested for misdemeanors, some as young as eight years old, aren't sitting in these jails learning skills to help them keep out of trouble. They're learning precisely the opposite."
Judd calls the accusations lies and half-truths.
He disputes that any juveniles end up in his custody because of misdemeanors. Judd said they are there because they're dangerous, out-of-control or have a long history of crime.
He said the 2011 law allowed Polk County to move juveniles out a worse environment with no accreditation into a larger, newer facility with better trained guards and round-the-clock nursing care. Plus, he said it has saved millions of tax dollars.
Sheriff Judd describes Thursday's press conference as a ruse organized by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is suing Polk County in federal court over this issue. Sheriff Judd said the suit is not going well for the plaintiffs so now they're aiming to stir up questions in the Florida Legislature.