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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Dangers of privatizing work-release

Barbed wire separates the Embassy Mobile Home Park from the nearby Largo Residential Re-Entry Center. The center was closed after a Sheriff’s Office investigation.
Barbed wire separates the Embassy Mobile Home Park from the nearby Largo Residential Re-Entry Center. The center was closed after a Sheriff’s Office investigation.
Published Jul. 1, 2013

Finally, residents in a Largo neighborhood can sleep a little easier. Florida's decision Friday to close a work-release center run by Goodwill Industries-Suncoast took longer than it should have taken. But it came less than 24 hours after Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri provided evidence that little had changed there despite nine months of high-profile scrutiny and legislative action. The entire episode should give state Republican leaders pause about the continued push to put more corrections operations in private hands and how those facilities operate. Public safety, including rehabilitation for soon-to-be-released prisoners, is more important than saving a few dollars.

Effective work-release centers are vital to rehabilitating inmates by providing an intermediate step to freedom. But management at Largo Residential Re-Entry Center on U.S. 19 failed to grasp that its job also included minimizing risk for the community. It wasn't until last year's murder of two men by an inmate and the sexual assault of a teenager by another that residents' complaints received a hard look. The picture up close was no prettier.

An investigation by the Tampa Bay Times' Curtis Krueger and Kameel Stanley published last Sunday showed a more complete picture of how lax operations had become even in the months after the murders and rape. As recently as January, state auditors found inmates regularly left the facility for work but never showed up at the job. Sexual activity among inmates was a recurring problem, sometimes with center staff. Nearly half of the inmates did not receive the substance abuse treatment they needed. And just two months ago, the facility manager left the center unsupervised and failed to discipline a prisoner who had been caught stealing. Yet none of that stopped the Department of Corrections from renewing the center's contract on May 31 for another five years.

The final straw was Gualtieri's revelations Thursday from a two-week undercover surveillance operation. Among the findings: Goodwill managers delayed reporting an inmate's escape for hours to authorities and even failed to provide the license plate number of the vehicle used in the escape. Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, shared those details with Gov. Rick Scott, and the center was closed in less than 24 hours.

The state should learn from this debacle. Among the obvious reforms lawmakers should consider is reinstating the requirement that work-release centers provide transportation for inmates to their jobs. Nearly all the mischief affecting the neighbors in Largo came as inmates walked to and from the center to jobs or a bus stop.

Florida has a dubious track record when it comes to overseeing privatized government services. It remains a mystery how Goodwill Industries-Suncoast won yet another five-year contract just a month ago. Scott and new Corrections Secretary Michael Crews deserve credit for finally taking action, but the real test of their leadership will be what reforms they offer. Merely continuing the same march toward privatizing corrections services — including six more work-release centers — in the name of saving money is not reform.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: The Florida Department of Corrections renewed the contract with Goodwill Industries-Suncoast for the now closed Largo Residential Re-Entry Center in May. An editorial published Sunday had an incorrect time period.

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