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Bill may put a stop to prison inmate drivers

William Montgomery was speeding last October in Miami when a Florida Highway Patrol trooper pulled him over and demanded to see his driver's license and proof of insurance.

Driving a van carrying prison inmates to work release assignments, Montgomery didn't have either one. Warned that he could be sent to jail, he told the trooper that was not an option. Montgomery was a state prison inmate.

After refusing to sign a ticket for driving without a license, he was taken into custody. The inmates in the van waited for a corrections officer to retrieve them.

"I can't believe we were allowing inmate drivers in state vehicles without driver's licenses," Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Alex Villalobos, R-Miami, said Monday.

The committee unanimously approved a bill, SB 278, that would prohibit inmates from driving state vehicles.

The bill sponsored by Villalobos would require inmates to walk, bicycle, use public transportation or catch a ride with a family member or employer to go to work. An identical bill has been filed in the House by Rep. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, but has not been scheduled for a hearing.

Department of Corrections officials say they temporarily stopped letting inmates drive last fall after hearing from Villalobos. They are trying to get work release inmates to work by using state employees, public transportation or employers, said Sterling Ivey, the department's communications director.

Ivey said inmates had been driving fellow inmates to work assignments in Florida since 1978, but they are supposed to have a driver's license and good driving record. He said he did not know how Montgomery had been allowed to drive without a license.

Montgomery's driving record included two accidents and tickets for careless driving, speeding and running a stop sign. He was found guilty of speeding in the October 2002 incident.

Until Villalobos complained, 64 inmate drivers transported other inmates in state vehicles every day. State officials estimate that during a 10-month period ending in October, inmates drove more than 1-million miles and received 13 traffic tickets, primarily for speeding. They had two accidents.

Corrections officials say it would cost the state an additional $4.1-million a year if all of the inmates had to be transferred from work release centers back into regular prison custody.

Inmates assigned to work release programs are minimum custody inmates serving sentences for nonviolent crimes. Montgomery, 46, was sentenced to three years in prison in June 2000 for two counts of burglary and grand theft.

What's next

SB 278, a bill banning state inmates from driving state vehicles, was unanimously approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee and will be considered next by the Criminal Justice Committee.