House, Senate Criminal Justice Budget Chairs Focus On Troubled Prison System

Apr 1, 2015

Credit MGN Online

Both chambers of the Florida Legislature laid out their criminal justice budgets Wednesday. The House and Senate spending plans are similar—driven by a goal of helping Florida’s troubled prison system.

Even with a four billion dollar gap between the House and Senate, the chambers have agreed to allot about $4.7 billion for Criminal Justice.

Rep. Larry Metz is taking the lead on the House’s criminal justice budget. He says one of his priorities is making sure Florida’s prison system—facing understaffing issues, allegations of inmate abuse and inmate deaths—gets properly funded to help cut down on problems.

Metz says he’s putting $15 million towards maintenance and repair at facilities.

“This is important because in the past, we’ve seen transfers from authority from salary and benefits over to maintenance and repair, leaving positions unfilled, which then causes concern with the operations of the institutions. So, by putting money where it belongs in this budget, we’re addressing public safety,” said Metz.

A similar figure is in the Senate’s budget plan. Its criminal justice budget writer is Sen. Joe Negron (R-Stuart).

“We also have $16.4 million for new positions to follow what Secretary Jones has recommended to us that we need additional people serving in the Department of Corrections as corrections officers in order to cut down on overtime and to make sure there are not staffing problems,” said Negron.

In addition to new positions, Sen. Darren Soto (D-Kissimmee) questioned whether more benefits for correctional officers are included.

“Senator Negron, thank you for this good budget and for increasing the number of correctional officers that we’re going to have,” said Soto. “My question is as we work with the House and potentially get a larger allocation, would you be open-minded to potential raises for some of the corrections officers if we can afford it?”

Negron says while that is a priority for him, that decision lies in the hands of the Senate’s main budget chairman, Sen. Tom Lee (R-Brandon).

Both the House and Senate are also making sure there’s enough money for new positions at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Metz says in light of a new formal agreement with the Florida Department of Corrections to investigate inmate deaths, he’s also put money toward helping FDLE’s bigger caseload.

“Very important aspect of our budget…we’re funding 17 new positions, costing $2.2 million, to address the issue of independent investigations of in-custody deaths in the Department of Corrections. This is pursuant to a revised Memorandum of Understanding between DOC and FDLE that was entered into earlier this year,” said Metz.

The House’s Criminal Justice budget also includes $18 million to address the continuing deficit in the state’s court system. And, that’s a huge priority for Sen. Negron as well.

“For me, the top priority in our budget is the court system,” said Negron. “Our court system is an independent co-equal branch of government. We have three branches of government. So, there’s been a reduction in revenues to the trial courts based on some reduced filing fees and other revenues that comes through the courts. So, they’re about $18 million short in their budget, and we’ve covered that shortfall.”

And, there’s also money to take care of an ongoing dispute between the counties and the Department of Juvenile Justice over splitting the costs of the state’s juvenile detention centers.

“And, what we have in that bill is a 43 percent share to the state and 57 percent share to the counties,” said Metz. “It’s based on five years of data that shows that that’s the proper percentage. We hope that this will help simplify this issue in the future and avoid any new litigation for subsequent fiscal years.”

The Senate also passed its omnibus prison reform package, which includes more training for correctional officers and making sure inmates get adequate health care.

Meanwhile, the House just unveiled a similar bill last week. The main difference is the House version doesn’t include an oversight board that can conduct its own investigations and do surprise inspections at correctional facilities.

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