Florida's Criminal Justice Budget Close To Taking Shape

Mar 1, 2016

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Florida lawmakers are close to deciding on the state’s criminal justice budget. A large portion deals with the state’s prison agency.

Most of the criminal and civil justice budget has been decided on. That’s according to Sen. Joe Negron (R-Stuart), the vice chair of the criminal budget conference.

“If you look at the big picture of our entire budget area, less than one percent of the funding issues are unresolved,” said Negron. “So, the fact, that we’ve come to an agreement on literally 99 percent of the funding issues and then only a handful of policy issues I think speaks well for all of us working together to find common ground.”

And, Rep. Larry Metz  (R-Yalaha)—the criminal budget conference chair—echoed those thoughts, during Monday’s meeting.

“We did land the plane pretty early in the process, relatively speaking,” he said. “Almost everything agreed upon. Just a few things that we kind of knew almost from the beginning that we wouldn’t be able to resolve. So, it went very smoothly, and I just want to thank you.”

“Thank you,” Negron replied.

Negron says among the unresolved issues are one-million dollars for a technology audit for the Florida Department of Corrections—a request by Sen. Greg Evers (R-Baker), the Senate Criminal Justice chairman.

“Senator Evers, whose the policy chair in this area, wants to make sure that if we purchase new technology that the technology is something where it can communicate with other agencies, where it’s easier for the legislature and others that oversee the department to be able to get access to the technology and it isn’t in a bunch of different silos. So, that’s an issues that’s been important to him,” said Negron, speaking to reporters.

Another area of disagreement is funding for a $1 million grant program for police body cameras.

“A number of Senators believe that the use of body cameras—with officers in the field and also with our correctional officers in prison—will protect officers from allegations that are not substantiated and will also provide the public and law enforcement with a more accurate rendition of what occurred,” Negron added. “So, that’s important to the Senate and we’ll move forward with it.”

Both the House and Senate did agree on about $145,000 for a similar effort at Sumter Correctional Institution, says Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones.

“It’s money for a pilot to start to use body cameras to monitor inmate and officer activity at Sumter and Sumter is a camp that is highly regulated for youthful offenders and juveniles,” said Jones, speaking to reporters. “And, Representative [David] Richardson has asked that we start the pilot there to continue on his good work with our youthful offender population.”

Jones had initially asked for 472 staffing positions. She’d later upped the request to 734. She says that would help address understaffing and help in her effort to reduce corrections officers’ shifts from 12 to 8 hours.

Although sympathetic to that request, Metz says the budget chairs simply couldn’t make the number work.

“We’re not giving them every last dollar because we don’t have the ability to do that. Sometimes we can’t go as far as we’d want to,” he said, speaking to reporters. “We can’t necessarily do it all in one fell swoop. But, I do, from a policy perspective, not budget, support Secretary Jones’ effort to go to an eight hour shift.”

And, Jones says she understands that, which is why she’ll be back next year with a similar staffing request.

“The reason that I asked to go back to eight hours was to we’ve used a staffing study that’s going to be completed at the end of May, which is going to be the gold standard for implementing relief factor, which I had originally asked for in this cycle. I think it’s going to get us close to level one staffing,” said Jones. ”But the relief factor goes to level 2 and 3. But, it’s going to give me a much better number to go forward with next year.”

The Florida Department of Corrections just signed a new prison health two-year contract with Centurion Florida, totaling $268 million. The prison agency had to sign a new contract, after the private prison health care provider for most of the state—Corizon Health—abruptly left.

Jones says she’s hopeful the money she needs to fund other services won’t be eaten up by this unexpected expense.

Meanwhile, the Florida House is now poised to vote on a bill to put guidelines in place for the state’s crime labs to follow when processing rape kits. Negron and Metz agreed on $2.3 million to help take care of the thousands of untested rape kits.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.