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Corrections Department cuts 66 probation officers to save money

TALLAHASSEE — Just two years after the high-profile murders of Carlie Brucia and Jessica Lunsford prompted a new law requiring probation officers to more closely watch for violators, the Department of Corrections announced that 66 of them lost their jobs Thursday.

The layoffs target those with less than a year of service and represent a 3 percent reduction in the probation officer force statewide, including six in the Tampa Bay area and 22 in South Florida. The cuts stem from last year's budgetary cuts to the prison system, which is facing a $28-million hole in its balance sheet.

"I truly regret having to take this action, but we have no other options given the current budget situation," said Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Walter McNeil.

Cutting probation officers statewide "minimizes the impact to public safety," said spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger.

The cuts come a few years after probation officers stepped into the spotlight with the two high-profile murders of children, Carlie Brucia in 2004 and Jessica Lunsford in 2005. Both girls were killed by felons who had violated their probation, prompting lawmakers to crack down on probation violators and increase the workload on probation officers.

The office of Gov. Charlie Crist, who led the crackdown charge, said these cuts won't affect implementation of that law.

"It's purely economics, you can only do what you can afford to do," said Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa. "Right now there's not enough revenue to do what should be done."

But the Police Benevolent Association says it thinks the probation officer layoffs will jeopardize public safety.

"We don't want to have those kinds of things, like Carlie Brucia and Jessica Lunsford, to prove a point, but that's what we've got," said union deputy director Matt Puckett. The union advocated layoffs to upper-level staffers instead of field officers.

The case load for existing probation officers will now grow 11 percent for each officer, to 93 cases on average, up from 84.

In the most recent special session, the Legislature slashed existing spending by $1.2-billion, which included 1,400 cuts of mostly vacant positions, 556 from the Corrections Department. Crist has until Jan. 29 to veto or sign off on the cuts.

Crist will also have to consider slicing an additional $7.1-million to probation operations and staffing, although the lawmakers specified they would prefer that actual probation officers keep their jobs.

Senate Minority Leader Al Lawson decried the layoffs and asked Crist to veto the entire budget and force the Legislature to redo its budget cuts.

"The loss of 66 probation officers not only jeopardizes public safety, it puts more strain on law enforcement and our court system already stretched to the breaking point," said Lawson, a Tallahassee Democrat, in a statement.

Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet and Marc Caputo contributed to this report.

Corrections Department cuts 66 probation officers to save money 01/16/09 [Last modified: Friday, January 16, 2009 11:10pm]
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