TALLAHASSEE — Buckling under the weight of a $79 million deficit, Florida's prison system is cutting back on the visits that probation officers have with offenders — a move sure to raise public safety concerns.
Corrections Secretary Ken Tucker late Wednesday night confirmed the latest budget-cutting move but he emphasized it would not jeopardize public safety or violate state law.
"We are not eliminating field contacts. We are just reducing some of the field contacts," Tucker said, referring to visits with offenders on probation. "Nothing is being done carelessly or without regard to public safety."
Tucker said he was not prepared to discuss all of the details of the policy change, but he said protecting public safety is a paramount concern of the Department of Corrections.
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which represents prison employees, had a different view.
"This is dangerous and illegal," said Teamsters spokeswoman Leslie Miller. "It gives violent offenders one meeting a month." She predicted it would prompt more offenders to flee.
Local officials also were concerned.
"Less supervision of offenders is certainly not a good thing," said Bruce Bartlett, Pinellas-Pasco's chief assistant state attorney. "Judges place people on probation with the intention that they'll be monitored by the Department of Corrections. Any reduction in the supervisory capacity of probation officers creates potential issues."
Even if prison officials require offenders to visit the probation office in lieu of a visit, it's "not the same effect as having someone knock on your door at 11 o'clock at night," Bartlett said.
Said Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri: "Some people do things because it's the right thing. Others do things because they know they're being watched. For those people who are the latter, when they know they aren't being watched, then my concern is that they might go out there and do things they're not supposed to. And then that falls to us."
Both Bartlett and Gualtieri noted it was difficult to assess the changes without knowing more details.
Florida's prison system, the nation's third-largest, is experiencing an unprecedented level of instability.
Tucker, who has been on the job since last August, has been forced to cut costs, in part by closing seven prisons, because the system has about 12,000 empty beds.
But on Wednesday, a joint House-Senate conference committee voted to keep open a faith-based women's prison in Hillsborough County that the agency insisted on closing because it was ranked the costliest prison in the state. The prison system hoped to save $10 million by closing Hillsborough Correctional, but the vote Wednesday could keep the prison open for at least one more year.
Two weeks ago, a move to privatize more than two dozen prisons in South Florida was defeated in the state Senate on a 21-19 vote. But by then, hundreds of correctional officers had quit their jobs, which forced the state to pay out millions of dollars in sick leave, unused vacation time and compensatory time due those workers.
The same legislative panel that voted to keep open Hillsborough Correctional also agreed Wednesday to eliminate 256 probation and parole officer jobs in the Department of Corrections. Some of those jobs are unfilled; how many could not be determined Wednesday.
"It's a difficult time in the department, trying to make up the deficit," Tucker said. "The areas we have to do it in are limited."
Times staff writer Dan Sullivan contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.