Go to jail, get a pension?
Hillsborough appears to be the only county in the state where tax dollars provide retirement benefits for inmates who dig ditches and pick up trash.
The practice prompted a Florida Senate committee Tuesday to pass a measure (SB 2848) that would prohibit inmates from accruing public retirement benefits. A similar measure is moving swiftly through the House.
Hillsborough County has paid at least $162,741 in retirement benefits to the state pension system for 640 Hillsborough County Jail inmates from 2002 through early April, according to the only state data available Tuesday.
But it's unclear how long the practice has been going on. Eligible inmates are those working as county employees in a work-release program, which is at least 15 years old.
"It's the stupidest thing I've ever heard," said Rep. Frank Attkisson, R-Kissimmee, who is among those trying to stop the practice.
Nobody knows if an inmate has retired on the public dime. But state retirement officials say it could happen, theoretically.
Inmates who have accrued benefits over the years served time for traffic fines, driving without a license, carrying a concealed gun, burglary, grand theft and cocaine possession.
Take inmate Quinten L. Fesser, who was paid $10,380 last year and built up about $1,020 toward a state pension and post-retirement health care. Fesser, now 46, had been accused of unemployment compensation fraud, driving without a valid license and driving drunk. He could not be reached for this story.
His earnings were among the highest, as most inmates made between $1,000 and $5,000 working for the county.
Why this is happening only in Hillsborough is unclear. The county jail and the state retirement system blame the county. The county blames the Sheriff's Office and retirement system.
Basically, Hillsborough County treats its work-release inmates the same as any other public employees, meaning they earn minimum wage and retirement benefits.
Other counties pay work-release inmates by giving them credits at the jail vending services, said former Palm Beach County Sheriff Frank Messersmith, who now lobbies for the Florida Sheriff's Association. Some counties classify their work-release inmates as "other personnel," so they're not eligible for benefits, Attkisson said.
Hillsborough Col. David Parrish, who leads the county's jail system, said it's important to pay inmates minimum wage, but he has no personal opinion on whether they should be able to build up retirement benefits.
"What are you going to do to them? You can't beat them," Parrish said. "Nobody is going to do that kind of hot, sweaty work cleaning ditches for free, when they can just sit in jail."
Parrish said he didn't know of any inmate who had worked long enough to qualify for retirement benefits.
It takes six years of service to qualify for the state's pension plan, making it unlikely an inmate would qualify based solely on work-release service. However, an inmate who later works for a government that participates in the state retirement system could build on the credit they accrued while in jail.
And a savvy inmate who works long enough could qualify for a small benefit based on his work-release service, say state retirement officials. An inmate who chooses to participate in the state's alternative plan, a defined contribution plan similar to a 401(k), can be vested after one year of service, said Department of Management Services spokeswoman Linda McDonald.
Six years of records show that about 10 inmates have worked more than a year as county employees. It's unknown which retirement plan they chose.
Even if every former county jail inmate fails to qualify for state retirement, the county can't get a refund, McDonald said.
"It's just crazy, totally ridiculous," said David Murrell, executive director of Florida Police Benevolent Association, a union representing police and corrections officers across the state. "A total misuse of public dollars."
Inmates who work in the county's jails aren't paid money. But work-release inmates can make minimum wage. To participate in the program, they must first pay a fee. Inmates are assigned either to the county or to a private-sector employer, such as Burger King, Parrish said. The inmate keeps seven hours worth of pay each day, but the county collects wages from the eighth hour.
The county said it's been trying for more than two years to work with the Sheriff's Office to stop the practice.
"We don't think it's appropriate to be making retirement contributions on behalf of work- release inmates," said Deputy County Administrator Wally Hill.
But Parrish said the jail defers benefit matters to the inmate's employer, whether it's the county or a private employer.
It's the county who took the matter to the Legislature.
"While you're doing your life sentence, you can get a state retirement," joked Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales.