LARGO — Pat Shipley says an in-jail rehabilitation program saved her 38-year-old daughter's life.
"My own daughter, 10 years on crack cocaine, is now a reliable person after going through Smart Choices," Shipley said. "She is working as a waitress. She has a car. She has her three children back with her."
Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats recently phased out the program to deal with a dwindling budget.
On Wednesday, Shipley, a member of Hope Lutheran Church in St. Petersburg, and about 15 other members of an interfaith civic group known as Faith and Action for Strength Together, or FAST, met with Coats to convince him to revive Smart Choices.
They weren't able to do so.
Minutes after the meeting, Joe Magri, FAST vice chair, said they were disappointed.
"You can't arrest your way out of a crime problem," said Magri, a member of Clearwater's St. Cecelia Catholic Church "You have do something that changes people."
In April, Coats was one of several Pinellas leaders at FAST's annual event, which presses officials to commit to social and community programs.
Coats then pledged to maintain Smart Choices programs for men and women at lower levels than the group desired. Now, Coats says he can't keep Smart Choices because of cuts to the 2010-11 budget, which passed Tuesday. Coats had to slash about $20 million from his budget, he said. It cost about $720,000 to run the program with 12 full-time workers.
"I've always been a strong supporter of giving inmates and ex-inmates opportunities to have necessary tools to be successful upon re-entering the community," Coats said before meeting with the group. "In this current budget climate, it's difficult for us to be able to do that."
The program was launched two years ago with up to 56 spaces each for men and women.
Magri and other FAST members insist it can be funded with certain federal and state trust funds. But Chief Deputy Robert Gualtieri said both funds have several restrictions, which prevent their use for Smart Choices.
Lorri Helfand can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4155.