As Some Blame Fla. Legislature For Prison Budget Cuts, Others Just Want It Fixed

Jul 20, 2018

Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones meets with inmates at the Wakulla Correctional Institution, March 8, 2016.
Credit Florida Department of Corrections facebook

The state budget officially went into effect earlier this month. That includes Florida’s prison budget, which led to prison officials cutting funding to programs helpful to inmates trying to transition back into society. While some blame the Florida legislature, others want to stop playing the blame game and move forward. In the first installment of her series, WFSU's Sascha Cordner digs into what led up to this point.

Last year, Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones presented to the state legislature her agency’s part in the Governor’s public safety budget for the 2018 legislative session.

Taking up most of the public safety budget, the Prison chief asked for millions to cover the costs of lawsuit settlements, maintenance repairs, additional staff, and mental health services.

But, after the legislative session, Jones said her agency had to make some major adjustments to make up for a more than $50 million budget shortfall—mostly to take care of rising health care costs.

“This keeps us in line with national standards and our constitutional responsibilities,” she said, during the past legislative session about how providing health care to all inmates is a requirement by law.

And, she said as much during a May release of the prison’s budget overview.

Secretary Jones did not want to sit down for an interview at this time, and an agency spokeswoman referred to the overview, instead.

In it, prison officials describe why reducing re-entry programming and substance abuse treatment for inmates and offenders was a “necessary last resort.”

And, the overview states the rising health care costs have not helped.

Some top state officials, including Governor Rick Scott, have expressed their disappointment over this turn of events.

“I’ve asked for, over the last eight budgets, I think it’s almost $400 million more than what the Legislature has funded,” he said, at the time. “The process is, I get to propose a budget and then the Legislature decides what they’re going to put into it. The Department of Corrections is working hard, the recidivism rate is down, as you know our crime rate is down. But, I’m disappointed the legislature didn’t fund all of it.”

“The time to blame…that’s gone by,” said Thomas Griffin. “The time to take action is now. You know, the imploding of the Department of Corrections is an emergency in the state of Florida and it’s time for him to take action.”

Thomas Griffin is the CEO of Transition House, one of the programs for Florida's inmates that got cut.
Credit Sascha Cordner / WFSU-FM

Griffin is the CEO of Transition House. It’s one of the transition programs around the state that lost more than million dollars in funding due to cuts made by the Department of Corrections to make up for the shortfall.

Griffin says it’s time for the state’s leaders to step up and take responsibility for what happened during the session.

“The House of Representatives passed the original budget, which included all the money,” he added. “The Senate passed a budget, which did not include healthcare coverage for inmates. But, then, that went back to the House and the House then ratified that budget. But, then that budget went to the Governor, and the Governor accepted it. And, you know, it’s time to take the responsibility that a mistake was made and an oversight took place and it’s time to correct that because currently, as we sit here right now, the Governor has $3 billion in what’s called the rainy day fund that he can use at his discretion to address emergencies that arise in the state of Florida.”

Some lawmakers have been working behind the scenes in search of a short-term solution, with no luck so far.

Meanwhile, a panel of Florida lawmakers met recently to discuss some additional changes they’d like to make to the budget. That includes funds for election security, medical marijuana, and homeless programs.

It even includes more than $9 million in funding to pay to treat inmates with STDs.

But, missing from the Joint Legislative Budget Committee’s agenda is how to address the prison agency’s budget shortfall.

Incoming Senate President Bill Galvano is a member of that panel. He says his hope is to take care of that issue next year.

“Well, I think that’s more of a next session budget issue...it wasn’t just a matter of reauthorizing funds,” said Galvano. “When the contract was renewed and those programs fell off, that was something that had to be kicked into next fiscal year.”

Tune in to next Friday’s Capital Report as we dive further into one of the transition programs for inmates hardest hit by the prison budget cuts.

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