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Senate passes measure to downsize controversial Largo work release center

The Florida Legislature may soon downsize the controversial Largo work-release center, where inmates recently have been accused of a rape and two murders.

The Florida Senate on Wednesday approved a budget amendment that would limit any Florida work release center to 200 inmates. Effectively, that part of the amendment applies only to the Largo Residential Re-Entry Center, operated by Goodwill Industries, because it's the only one that big.

"It's the largest in the state by 100. I think part of their issue is they've got too many people to keep track of there," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who proposed the amendment.

The center has a capacity of up to 300 inmates. It's the largest work release site in Florida, and also has the most escapes.

Latvala said his amendment, which also contains other provisions, is designed "to make the residents of that area feel more secure in living there."

He said the state Department of Corrections has been receptive to the possible changes.

State Rep. Ed Hooper said he intended speak to fellow House members to push for a similar amendment, possibly by simply adopting the Senate proposal.

"My only goal is to make sure my constituents are safe and that there is not another murder or rape or incident in and around the Largo work release center for as long as I'm involved in this process and a whole lot longer," said Hooper.

Hooper, R-Clearwater, said he spoke to Goodwill officials about the change, and they opposed it.

However, Goodwill spokeswoman Chris Ward said in an email Wednesday that "Goodwill will certainly comply with whatever the Legislature and the DOC requires."

Once the House passes its budget, representatives from the House and Senate will meet and iron out the differences. It won't be clear until afterward whether the measure becomes official.

Florida has 32 work release centers, some operated by the DOC, some operated by outside contractors such as Goodwill.

Latvala's amendment also contains measures that would affect all privately operated centers. It requires all work release centers to have a certified correctional officer on hand at all times. Currently, the private centers are not required to do so, although it's standard practice at DOC-operated centers.

It also says that transportation for inmates must be "provided by the contractor and paid for by the inmate or group of inmates requiring transportation." Currently, inmates sometimes get bus passes and use public transportation to get to their jobs.

Florida Corrections Secretary Michael Crews has stressed the benefits of work release centers. He points out that inmates go into work release only if they are scheduled to get out of prison in the next 14 months. Work release is designed to provide a better transition by letting inmates get jobs, so they can re-enter the workplace and become law-abiding.

A Tampa Bay Times investigation in February revealed that murderers and other violent offenders were regularly housed at work release centers, even though officials often describe them as housing the nonviolent. Five days later, the DOC removed murderers from all work release centers.

Also that month, former Largo inmate Michael Scott Norris admitted he escaped from work release and murdered two men in St. Petersburg. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Another former inmate, Dustin Kennedy, has been accused of raping a 17-year-old girl near the work release center in December. He awaits trial.

Curtis Krueger can be reached at ckrueger@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8232. Twitter: @ckruegertimes. Times Staff Writers Kameel Stanley and Katie Sanders contributed to this report.

Senate passes measure to downsize controversial Largo work release center 04/10/13 [Last modified: Friday, May 31, 2013 5:47pm]
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