Probation Officers Jobs Safe by Bill Cotterell

Posted: December 3, 2009 in News and politics
Article published Nov 4, 2009
DOC: Probation officers’ jobs won’t be eliminated
By Bill Cotterell
Florida Capital Bureau

The Department of Corrections has corrected its budget-cutting choices, saying it never meant to eliminate jobs of more than 1,100 probation officers.

But what remains on the list of cuts that legislators will begin perusing this week adds up to "a parade of horribles," in the legislative parlance. A 10 percent cut from this year’s prison spending — a worst-case scenario legislators mandate at the outset of budget plans — would mean early release of prisoners. Other last-resort options call for closing three prisons; junking community-based drug programs, probation and victim-restitution centers; eliminating chaplain programs and "transition" service for inmates getting out and trimming private-prison contracts by 10 percent.

DOC Secretary Walt McNeil said his department’s initial list erroneously included elimination of regular probation, with 1,131 officers being laid off. That was one item forwarded up the bureaucratic chain of command, and it somehow was left in the plan sent electronically to House and Senate staff.

A corrected list has been sent, McNeil said.

"I want to reassure each and every employee of this department that I will be fighting to maintain our current public-safety workforce levels," McNeil said in the DOC newsletter, the Correctional Compass.

McNeil wrote that his corrected list would lay other draconian reductions before the House and Senate this week. Some of those include:

  • $117.7 million saved by granting "lump-sum gain time" of 90 days next June 30 for inmates who have served the required 85 percent of their sentences. Sex offenders and lifers would not be eligible for the three-month early release.

  • $11.1 million by closing three prisons. "More than 4,670 inmates would have to be relocated to other remaining facilities," which McNeil said would probably result in "violation of constitutional law" and force further early release.

  • $15.1 million by eliminating federal education basic skills programs. This would cost the state federal matching money, McNeil said, while causing "a greater likelihood of recidivism and our re-entry efforts will be compromised."

  • $13.8 million by reducing payments to GEO Group and Corrections Corp. of America, the companies operating six prisons for the state.

  • $4.1 million by eliminating pre-trial intervention, a diversion program for non-violent offenders charged with misdemeanors or third-degree felonies.

  • $7.5 million by eliminating transition services, including chaplaincy, "betterment" programs and faith-based temporary housing.

    "The 10 percent reduction for us would have been about a $224 million reduction," McNeil said in an interview. "We don’t believe that, given the public safety concerns that we have, that we could actually meet that 10 percent reduction at that level."

    In his department newsletter, McNeil emphasized that the revised list "simply provides information for policymakers as we begin discussions on these issues" in the Legislature this week. Gov. Charlie Crist will make budget recommendations in January and they will meet March 2-April 30 in the regular legislative session.

    Like all agency chiefs, McNeil said he and his managers will fight to save programs and jobs as legislators deal with revenue shortfalls projected as high as $2 billion.

    "We will clearly articulate how these options will impact not just departmental operations but, more importantly, public safety and the safety of the men and women of the Department of Corrections, and would have profound consequences," McNeil wrote in the agency newsletter.

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