The Department of Corrections moved convicted murderers out of all of the state's work release centers on Friday and said it will no longer allow them to participate in the program.
The move comes less than a week after the Tampa Bay Times published an investigation about the hundreds of violent felons housed at the facilities.
For years, officials running the minimum security work release centers described the program as a transitional stop for low-level, nonviolent offenders near the end of their sentences.
But the Times found that as of Jan. 31, more than 17 percent of the nearly 4,000 inmates in work release centers committed violent crimes — including 20 murderers.
"All inmates with a current or prior conviction of murder or homicide have been removed from Work Release," DOC Secretary Michael Crews said Friday in a statement. "Inmates with these convictions will be ineligible for participation in Work Release moving forward."
Crews said work release is "one of our most valuable programs for helping inmates nearing the end of their sentence successfully transition from prison back to their community."
But he said a series of incidents — plus complaints from local officials and residents — caused prison officials to review who should be eligible for the program.
About 50 inmates were sent back to prison from work release centers Friday morning, said DOC spokeswoman Ann Howard. The exact crimes committed by all of those 50 inmates were unclear Friday. The Times' tally of 20 murderers did not include people convicted of manslaughter.
The controversy over work release centers began at the Largo Residential Re-entry Center, where two inmates were linked to violent crimes in recent months. One of them, Michael Scott Norris, pleaded guilty this week to killing two workmen inside a St. Petersburg home after he escaped from the center in September.
Scrutiny intensified this week after the Times published its findings about violent inmates housed in work release, which surprised nearby residents who said they were told the facility would house nonviolent prisoners.
The "article and my comments and my vigorous reaction to the one in Largo made them review their policy," said state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater. "I think this is the right thing for them to do."
Latvala also complained to prison officials in January after a Times' story chronicled the high number of escapes at the Largo facility. Soon after, state officials conducted an unannounced audit of the center and sent a dozen inmates back to prison for various rule violations. The state also requested that the center, run by Goodwill Industries, tighten its security measures.
Howard said the department takes residents' complaints seriously.
"Their concerns are valid and we intend to work with all communities across the state so they know that keeping them safe is a priority," she said.
The new policy is a reversal for the department.
Just two weeks ago, Deputy DOC Secretary Timothy Cannon said he was not surprised the newspaper found murderers in work release.
"Having a murder charge, per se, does not disqualify someone," he said.
Cannon and Crews told reporters it was important to give both violent and nonviolent offenders the tools to transition back into society.
Crews has said work release is an effective tool for reducing crime because it gives inmates work and other experiences that can help them learn to become law-abiding. Also, he and Cannon stressed in previous interviews that those in work release are about to be released from prison anyway.
The policy change does not mean the department is backing away from the concept of work release. But officials did say they are making changes after recent security lapses at the Largo center.
Gov. Rick Scott has proposed putting all work release inmates on electronic ankle monitors.
Latvala wants to reduce the number of inmates at the Largo center, which is the state's biggest. Largo residents who live near it were happy to hear the department removed murderers from the program, but were skeptical that their problems were over.
"To me it's a knee jerk reaction to bad press," said Carol Dattoli, who lives near the spot where work release inmate Dustin Kennedy is accused of raping a teenager on her way to school in January.
Dattoli said she won't be happy until the center is shut down.
"They've had five years to do this right. I don't feel that means they've cleaned up their act," she said. "They were idiots for having them there in the first place."