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Chained to flawed logic

Faye Lamb Vann, 44, was sitting in her car one sunny day outside a Tallahassee shopping mall when a man with a knife tried to steal it and stabbed her to death.

He was Donald David Dillbeck, who had escaped the day before from a prison vocational-school work detail that was catering a banquet in Gadsen County 35 miles away. He shouldn't have been there.

Dillbeck, who had served only 12 years of a life sentence for murdering a sheriff's deputy, still was 13 years shy of parole eligibility and had attempted escape before. Then-Gov. Bob Martinez fired three prison officials whom he blamed for misclassifying Dillbeck to minimum custody.

Despite that tacit admission of negligence, however, the state five years later still has paid the Vann family nothing _ even for funeral expenses.

In February, the 1st District Court of Appeal threw out a trial court's $150,000 award. The prisons, said the court, have no special duty to any individual citizen to protect her "from the criminal acts of an escaped prisoner." In April, the court invoked the same flint-hearted standard against a Mississippi woman, Linda McGhee, whose husband, a park ranger, was killed by two Florida convicts who had escaped from a doctor's office with the help of a homemade knife and homemade handcuff key. The guards escorting them had failed to search them before leaving the prison.

Whenever the state's negligence costs the life of an innocent person, the state ought to pay _ as it would have paid, ironically, had Dillbeck killed another prisoner instead.

The cases are on appeal to the Supreme Court so there still is some chance of justice for the McGhee and Vann families.

But you have to wonder why the Legislature, which made such a show this year of caring about crime victims, didn't react. Walt Logan, a St. Petersburg lawyer suing the state on behalf of a woman raped by a work-release escapee, had alerted State Sen. Charlie "Chain Gang" Crist. Nothing happened.

Crist says victimized families always can ask the Legislature to pass claims bills awarding them money. But this is a Catch-22; the Legislature almost never takes up a claims bill unless a court already has found negligence worth more than the $100,000 that can be paid without legislation.

Escapes are way down since Dillbeck's prompted the prisons to tighten their rules. Thanks to Crist's chain-gang amendment, however, the risk to the public may soon intensify. His highly publicized feud with the Department of Corrections over whether inmates should wear individual shackles or be chained to each other is beyond the point. The violence-prone, high-risk inmates who'll qualify for chain gangs are just the ones who shouldn't be out in public _ regardless of how they are chained or how many armed guards shadow them.

Currently, the prisoners cutting weeds and clearing trash along Florida's roads are minimum-custody people who are neither dangerous nor escape risks. A least 16 times last year, says Harry Singletary, the secretary of corrections, they found discarded guns, which were sometimes loaded, and turned them in.

Now, what might the members of a chain gang do when they stumble across a gun?

Singletary hopes to reduce the risk by working many of the chain-gang inmates on conservation chores instead of roads. But, he concedes, somebody still "could drop a gun for them if they know exactly where they're working." It was for the sake of public safety, he explained, that the state years ago quit working close-custody inmates outside its prisons. And why, he might have added, legislators ought to butt out.

Crist's logic runs in peculiar circles. The Vann and McGhee murders, he insists, "make a strong case for the need for chain gangs, to make sure they are more secure if you have the more violent offenders outside the prison fence."

Yoo hoo, senator. They're not outside now! Why put them there? Instead of making flashy political statements, why not attend to the real problems inside the prisons? Among these problems are not enough useful work and pitifully inadequate schooling.

It will all get worse. The Legislature this year went on a crime-fighting binge that could cost as much as $1.8-billion for new prisons over the next 10 years and, eventually, $1.5-billion more each year to run them. Under Florida's new constitutional lid on spending, there'll be less money for the schools and other forms of prevention that most legislators knew to be wiser investments. Since Willie Horton, however, there has been no such thing as a safe vote against a crime bill.

A Florida poll released last week said that most Floridians, perceiving crime to be a less serious problem in their neighborhoods, want less money spent on prisons and more spent on schools. If that's true, it suggests a follow-up question for the next poll:

How can such bright people elect such a dim-bulb Legislature?

Martin Dyckman is associate editor of the Times.