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Best intentions, worst results at Largo work release center

Published May 31, 2013

Two men have been mourned, their killer has been sentenced, and the prison doors have slammed shut forever on Michael Scott Norris.

This seems like justice, but it is not yet the end of the story. Not for the Department of Corrections. Not for a prison work-release center in Largo. And certainly not for a group of neighbors who have been duped and deceived.

By now, you may have heard of the problems at the Largo Residential Re-Entry Center run by Goodwill Industries. The center is part of a statewide program designed to help prisoners near the end of their sentences get jobs and reintegrate into society.

The concept behind work-release centers is sensible and well-meaning. If prisoners are soon to be set free, why not give them their best shot at staying out of trouble?

Even so, there should be no illusion that this program is risk-free. Combine felons, limited freedom and human nature, and there are bound to be problems.

The key is taking precautions and responsibility seriously. And this is where the Department of Corrections and Goodwill failed to hold up their end of the bargain.

They misled the residents around the Largo center when they said prisoners convicted of violent crimes would not be housed there. And they appear to have been seriously lax in monitoring the activities of inmates both inside and outside the facility.

At some point, they need to answer for these mistakes.

Norris alone was responsible for his actions when he killed two men in a St. Petersburg home. But it cannot — and should not — be overlooked that he was apparently allowed to walk out of the center hours before his workday was scheduled to begin on the day of the murders.

Were this an isolated case, then it might be deemed unavoidable. But stories by Times reporters Curtis Krueger and Kameel Stanley indicate that Norris had long enjoyed more freedom than the rules allow.

This aligns with a 2012 state audit that revealed the Largo center was deficient when it came to checking with employers about inmates' schedules.

So how does this happen?

You can argue it is a chain reaction of poor decisionmaking that begins at the very top of state government.

Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature have been hellbent on privatizing prisons throughout Florida. The governor's latest budget proposes privatizing 14 more work-release centers this year.

The philosophy is that private companies — either for-profit industries or nonprofits such as Goodwill — are able to run prisons at a considerably lower cost than the state can.

Yet no one bothers to ask how private companies can be so much cheaper.

And maybe that's because the reason is too scary to contemplate. Could it be that private groups hire fewer — and less-qualified — employees to run their prisons?

No matter what the reason, it does not appear that the Largo center was as secure as it claimed to be to its neighbors. Nor was the DOC paying close enough attention.

There is a huge difference between a random mistake and a systematic failure. Goodwill and the DOC need to assure residents around Largo, and all of Pinellas County, that they are prepared and capable of running a work-release program correctly.

They need to do it right or not do it at all.

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