When an official with the Florida Department of Corrections misled residents living near a work release center in Largo by claiming no violent offenders are housed there, he harmed the department's reputation and he violated the public trust. When the department allowed the Largo facility to continue lax supervision that may have contributed to two serious crimes being committed by inmates, it put the entire work release program at risk of a political backlash. DOC Secretary Michael Crews needs to protect a program that provides essential help for inmates about to return to society by making sure it runs as intended.
Residents living near the Largo Residential Re-Entry Center were understandably upset to learn that inmates there have committed violent crimes, including murder. Earlier they were told otherwise by Randy Tifft, a DOC regional director, who now apologizes for the error. He failed to be candid about an essential feature of work release programs: Violent offenders sometimes participate. In the Largo facility run by Goodwill Industries, 18.5 percent of the 249 inmates housed there have been convicted of a violent offense. That's not unusual. Of the 3,495 inmates in the state's 32 work release centers, 17.6 percent are serving time for violent crime.
Tifft's misrepresentations are inexcusable. Floridians who live near work release centers should understand that inmates with violent offenses have to be included for the program to succeed in reducing overall recidivism. Studies show that prison inmates who go through work release programs tend to reoffend less, although the department doesn't keep separate track of the recidivism rates of violent versus nonviolent work release offenders.
To protect the public, the program's rules are tightly written. Problems arise when the rules aren't followed. For instance, inmates scheduled to be released in 14 months or less are the only ones who are supposed to qualify. But there are at least four people recently in work release centers who were serving life sentences with no guarantee of imminent release.
Work release is only extended to those who have earned the prison system's lowest security designation of "community custody," meaning those inmates with a good prison record are rewarded with a modicum of trust. But it is intended to be a highly supervised program, allowing inmates to work at jobs and reconnect with family under strict rules of behavior and movement. The problem with the Largo facility — the state's biggest — is that it didn't do enough to enforce rules or supervise the inmates, resulting in the most escapes of any facility in the state.
The facility drew attention after two of its inmates were accused of committing violent crimes, and one of them pleaded guilty Monday to two murders and was sentenced to life in prison. Yet it took a report by the Tampa Bay Times on security lapses and reactions from state lawmakers before corrections officers with drug-sniffing dogs inspected the facility. Serious violations were uncovered, and a dozen inmates were sent back to prison.
Crews is standing behind the work release program even for violent offenders. Now his job is to bring new scrutiny to the state's centers and be honest with the public as to what is found.