TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday chose career law enforcement officer Julie Jones to take over the Department of Corrections, making her the fourth boss in four years at an agency grappling with massive problems.
The first woman to run the troubled agency, she has spent her career in state government, but has no experience in corrections.
The nation's third-largest prison system has been wracked by suspicious inmate deaths, physical abuse of inmates by guards, complaints over privatized inmate health care, systemic failings by the agency's in-house watchdog and a persistent budget deficit that has prevented rank-and-file officers from getting a pay raise for six years.
Scott called Jones a "true reformer" committed to "accountability and transparency," suggesting he hired her to shake up the agency's good-ol'-boy culture.
"If that's warranted, it will happen," Jones said.
Allison DeFoor, a former Monroe County sheriff and judge who has led the call for prison reform in Florida, said Jones will fail if she doesn't clean house.
"Watch her at the very beginning. If she keeps the old guard around her, she's done," said DeFoor, whose think tank, the Project on Accountable Justice, is seeking widespread reforms including a prison oversight commission. Jones said she opposes that idea as "another layer of bureaucracy" with a potential for conflicts of interest by vendors seeking prison contracts.
"She's tough," DeFoor said, "but changing the captain of the Titanic doesn't change the direction of the ship."
Jones is taking charge at a time when the Legislature is eager for change, DeFoor noted, adding it is critical that Jones has Scott's full support.
Jones, 57, a Broward County native and Florida Atlantic University graduate, retired in April after five years as executive director of the state motor vehicle agency. There, she oversaw the Florida Highway Patrol and the issuance of drivers' licenses. For the previous 26 years, she rose through the ranks of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, becoming chief of its law enforcement unit.
Known for her direct, no-nonsense style, she will take over an agency with a $2.3 billion budget and 101,000 inmates. One in seven state employees — a total of 21,000 — works in the Florida prison system.
"The Department of Corrections needs a major overhaul and needs to be brought into the 21st century," Jones said. "It's operating in an old paradigm. I want to get all eyes on the problem."
Her priorities include holding workers more accountable, expanding education and other programs for inmates, and preparing them for a return to life on the outside.
"The governor supports prison reform," Jones said, "and they've given me full support to do what I have to do to get this fixed."
She said she wants to strengthen the foundation built by her predecessor, Mike Crews, who retired two weeks ago.
Crews fired two dozen guards for misconduct and created an inmate mortality database, listing all inmate deaths on a website. More than 100 cases were sent to state law enforcement agents for criminal investigations.
Jones knew she was being vetted for the job, but not until late last week did Scott's new chief of staff, Melissa Sellers, make her an offer. Jones starts work Jan. 5 and will earn $160,000 a year in addition to a $9,700 monthly retirement benefit from her 31 years of state employment.
She also received a lump-sum payment of $622,000 when she retired last April under the state's deferred retirement or DROP program.
Chuck Collins, a former regional director of the fish and wildlife agency who worked with Jones for many years, said her organizational skills are her strength.
"With any organization, you need to step back and bring in fresh eyes," Collins said. "She's a visionary who sets goals."
Ron McAndrew, a retired state prison warden who works as a prison consultant, said Jones' appointment is a good sign.
"It's a fresh face that no one expected, so it's going to clean the surface and make way for improvements,'' McAndrew said.
McAndrew suggested Jones spend her first two weeks driving to prisons across the state.
"Learn what a dormitory smells like," he said. "Learn what it's like to be a corrections officer working alone in an open bay dorm at Charlotte Correctional Institution at 1 o'clock in the morning. Learn what it's like to be a member of the execution team."
Mike Riley, acting chief of the Teamsters' Union local representing correctional officers, said Jones needs to learn the nuances of being a corrections officer.
"They are locked behind fences with inmates. Their only weapon is a radio and a can of chemical agents,'' Riley said. "The biggest difference is, a highway patrolman has a gun to defuse violence, and we have to use our interpersonal skills.''
Other reviews of Scott's pick were positive.
"I have a very high regard for Julie Jones' leadership, management and organizational skills," said Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a Cabinet member who was one of Jones' four bosses when she ran the highway safety agency.
Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano, a former legislator who opposed Scott's re-election, oversaw the highway safety budget as a senator. He said Jones is well-suited to the challenge.
"She doesn't put up with any garbage," Fasano said. "That's what's wonderful about her."
Miami Herald staff writer Sue Cocking contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @SteveBousquet.