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Probation officers alarmed by quiet policy reversal on oversight of offenders

TALLAHASSEE — Probation officers are alarmed by a cost-saving policy reversal by the state Department of Corrections scaling back oversight of offenders.

Bleeding red ink, the prison system must cut expenses by about $79 million for the four months left in the current fiscal year, so probation officers are being told to curtail monthly field visits through June, except to sex offenders and those who are under an intensive form of supervision known as community control.

Offenders on house arrest will receive a visit every other week instead of the current weekly visits.

Acting quietly, the prison system has not issued a written directive to employees on the new policy, instead communicating by phone. The agency hopes to save at least $400,000 over the next four months.

"There are a significant number of high-risk offenders who are not going to be receiving the same level of supervision in the coming months," said Gil Fortner, 56, of Crestview, a 27-year veteran of the prison system and a probation officer based in DeFuniak Springs.

The change surfaces as legislators make final decisions on the prison system's budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. One of those changes: eliminating 256 probation officer jobs.

In response to Times/Herald inquiries, the agency issued a statement that verbally tiptoed around the changes, citing security reasons.

"Public safety is the first and primary consideration before any adjustments are made," the agency said. "However, if a modification has been made, those probationers will continue to be monitored in other ways. Due to security, the department cannot discuss further specifics as it relates to our processes as we oversee and monitor probationers."

Christina Bullins, a Teamsters Union member who is also a probation supervisor in Miami, said fewer field visits make it less likely that an officer will discover a technical violation of probation that could prevent more serious crimes later.

"Those visits help prevent further victimization later," said Bullins, a 12-year veteran of the Florida prison system. "You're just not going to be as familiar with them when you're not seeing them as much."

Vic Castellano, 72, of Land O'Lakes, is a retired probation officer with more than 30 years experience and a former assistant regional administrator of the prison system in Tampa.

"I really don't think you know the offender unless you're out there in the environment," Castellano said. But he added that every time the top leadership of the Department of Corrections changes, new policies are put into effect.

Corrections Secretary Ken Tucker's efforts to control costs have repeatedly hit political roadblocks. He proposed closing seven prisons because of a surplus of empty beds, but lawmakers plan to keep two of them open, in Hillsborough and Jefferson counties, at a combined cost of about $20 million next year.

A privatization of all prisons in South Florida, which was projected to have saved at least $16.5 million the first year, was defeated by the Senate on a 21-19 vote.

In yet another money-saving move, Tucker has closed two privately run re-entry centers in Bradenton and Pompano Beach, a move that will force several hundred inmates to be reclassified and sent to other facilities — though many have less than a year left on their sentences. The private firm operating the two centers, Bridges of America, is considering filing a lawsuit challenging the action.

Times staff writer Kameel Stanley contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

Probation officers alarmed by quiet policy reversal on oversight of offenders 03/01/12 [Last modified: Thursday, March 1, 2012 11:16pm]
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