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Sky is no limit in plan to keep eye on felons

Stung by bad publicity and voter outrage at the recent release of 500 felons, Florida lawmakers moved rapidly Monday to strap a tighter leash on newly freed prisoners.

In what would be the first such program in the country, probation officers would use satellites to track the worst offenders on a 24-hour basis. Other prisoners also could come under closer scrutiny, receiving at least four visits a week.

The process was moving so quickly that nobody could say how many millions of dollars it would all cost.

Despite the lack of information, the Senate Crime Committee approved the concept Monday, the same day 200 inmates were released to join the 300 set free last week. Legislators hope to get the plan through the full Senate and House and on the governor's desk within a week.

"We're trying to make the very best of a bad situation," said state Sen. Charlie Crist, R-St. Petersburg. "At least we'll know where they are at every moment and give the public as much protection as possible."

A U.S. Supreme Court decision not to intervene in a Florida case last month resulted in the immediate release of 500 inmates _ many of them killers, rapists and thieves. In addition, the decision will lead to shortened sentences for at least 2,200 other prisoners over the next 20 years.

The ensuing uproar has Florida's tourism officials worried about the impact on the state's No. 1 industry. Friday, Lee County Sheriff John McDougall told a nationwide television audience to stay away from Florida because of the danger created by the release.

Until Monday, the satellite system was to be a small pilot program starting in the next two months in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties to track felons on house arrest. The new bill would vastly expand the program across the state to monitor prisoners on conditional release.

The contract for the pilot program is held by a Palm Harbor company, Pro Tech Monitoring Inc. The contractor, Hoyt Layson, assured Crist that production of the ankle units would be increased to meet the demands of the new program, should it be enacted.

The satellites can pinpoint people wearing a special ankle bracelet to within a few feet, 24 hours a day.

The satellite system would be used on the 2,200 prisoners who are still in prison but scheduled for early release. It also would be used on some 1,400 other serious felons scheduled for regular release in the coming years. Department of Corrections Deputy Secretary Bill Thurber said the satellite system would cost $10 to $12 per day per inmate.

The new law could not be applied to those who already have been released from prison. What corrections officials may do, however, is step up their use of existing supervision tactics. So the 500 prisoners who already have been released early because of the court decision would be placed under stricter supervision by senior probation officers and receive at least four visits per week. All the Legislature has to do is pay for it _ a cost of at least $7-million, Thurber said.

Those already-released inmates could face tougher going under yet another piece of legislation, supported by House Speaker Daniel Webster. Under this bill, prisoners who are released before serving 85 percent of their sentences would go back to prison and serve the rest of the time if they violate their release conditions.

"It'll be a good tool," Thurber said of the new supervision initiatives. "It's a big stick."

Senators said they hoped the tighter supervision would also restore the confidence of tourists.

"Our national and international reputation has been severely damaged by action the Supreme Court took," said Al Gutman, R-Miami. "We have to move forward to make sure that tourists can visit Florida, and that Florida is safe."