Florida is poised to make significant changes to privately operated work-release programs now that lawmakers have agreed to beef up security and limit the size of the centers.
Tucked into the state budget are three paragraphs that provide $3.8 million for electronic monitoring of inmates. In addition, the centers will be capped at a population of 200 inmates, and any facility with more than 100 inmates will be required to have at least one certified corrections officer on the premises at all times.
Gov. Rick Scott has the power to veto individual line items in the budget, but he previously announced that getting ankle bracelets to monitor inmates was a priority.
The last two changes, prompted by two local lawmakers, will directly impact the embattled Largo Residential Re-Entry Center.
With nearly 300 inmates housed in a converted motel off U.S. 19 near Whitney Road, the facility is by far the state's largest. It is operated by Goodwill Industries under a state contract with the Department of Corrections. It's the only work-release center in Florida with more than 200 inmates.
In late February, one of its inmates pleaded guilty to escaping and killing two men renovating a St. Petersburg house. Another inmate is awaiting trial on charges that he brutally raped and tried to kill a 17-year-old girl on her way to school.
"If the facility is going to be there, we got it buttoned up as well as we can get it," said state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.
"My ultimate hope is that we never have another incident at the Largo work-release center in comparison with what we've had happen twice in the last year," said state Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater.
Hooper and Latvala, who represent districts that include the Largo center, said they have worked hard to respond to nearby residents who have raised concerns about the facility for years.
Still unclear, however, is how some of the changes — which would take effect July 1 — will be implemented. Scott has yet to officially sign the budget.
Department of Corrections spokeswoman Ann Howard said the agency plans to start electronic monitoring with a pilot program at a facility yet to be determined.
"There's a lot to figure out," Howard said Monday. "We're so early in the process we don't have a lot of answers yet."
Officials must decide who will do the monitoring, and whether the change will require the work to be bid out to a contractor.
The DOC's probation department already has electronic monitoring, but work release comes with its own challenges.
For instance, it may be difficult to set up the "range" for inmates who have jobs that require them to travel, like landscaping.
Currently, the state Department of Corrections operates 23 work-release centers. Nine others, including the Largo center, are run by private companies that have contracts with the state. State facilities are required to hire people who have passed a certification exam as correctional officers, but that has not been a requirement for the private companies such as Goodwill.
Now the private facilities will need at least one certified staff member at all times, a change that Hooper called "a no-brainer." By comparison, he said, "In a classroom, should we have a certified teacher or maybe some nice folks who want to come in and volunteer?"
Goodwill applauded the decision to fund electronic monitoring.
"We will make all the changes mandated by the new legislation, as will other organizations operating work-release centers throughout Florida," spokeswoman Chris Ward told the Tampa Bay Times in a statement Monday.