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New corrections chief talks to lawmakers

By Gina Jordan

Tallahassee, FL – Florida's new Corrections chief is finally getting settled in Tallahassee. Edwin Buss moved from Indiana this/last week, where he led that state's Corrections Department. Shortly after his arrival, Gina Jordan tells us he was quizzed by a House justice committee on prison closures, inmate population and diversion programs.

Secretary Buss is now heading up the third largest state prison system in the country. Projections show it will grow by seven-percent in the next half a dozen years.

"There's 101-thousand inmates housed in 145 prison facilities, including 63 major institutions; 115-thousand active offenders reporting to 156 probation officers; 29 thousand positions - 74% are certified officers, inspectors and other positions that require certification."

In the corrections world, Buss says Florida has a reputation for being tough on crime and locking up a lot of people. Representative Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg is concerned about mandatory sentences and judicial discretion. Rouson, who overcame his own substance abuse issues, says it's common for drug-addicted offenders to receive excessive punishments.

"Maybe DOC can take a new approach towards such inmates."

Buss: "Yes, Representative, if it's the will of the Legislature, we can do whatever you need us to do by identifying some of the people with longer sentences who don't pose a threat to society."

While public safety is touted as the department's number one job, efforts at cost cutting continue. Buss says closing some of Florida's old, inefficient prisons and maximizing bed space in others will save tens of millions of dollars. Nine-thousand prison beds are currently open, and he sees potential for adding beds without building new facilities.

"Florida's one of the few states in the nation that isn't double-bunked, and in Indiana, we actually were triple-bunked. If the ceilings were high enough, we would stack three bunks in work camps and some other minimum security camps because we just simply didn't have the money to build new construction. So I think there's a lot of opportunities in the existing prisons in looking at space."

His operating budget is roughly 2.3-billion dollars, and Governor Scott has said he wants to cut close to half of that. Law enforcement groups like the Florida Police Benevolent Association say such a steep cut is dangerous and will result in violent criminals getting out early. Letting inmates out on work release could save money, although Representative Larry Metz of Eustis wondered how such a program could be successful in current market conditions.

"Isn't that going to really be a very difficult challenge to increase work release in a high unemployment economy when we're trying to create jobs for law abiding citizens?"

Buss: "You know surprisingly Representative, no. We, in Indiana, work releases were, especially the private facilities in Indiana, they had great relationship with employers."

Secretary Buss is hoping for a partnership between the DOC and the judges to create diversion programs. He says they're less expensive and evidence shows they're better than simply locking up non-violent criminals or those with mental health or addiction issues. Representative Dwight Bullard of Miami also sees them as a way to avoid prison overcrowding.

"I'm curious as to how DOC is gonna be a liaison between the local folks to sort of keep those prison beds empty as possible."

Buss: "That's a great question, Representative, and we're gonna do whatever we can to work with the courts. Obviously the courts are gonna have to assist us with that in the sentencing framework."

The governor's first budget proposal includes two prison closures impacting nearly 1700 employees. But Buss says those laid off workers would be given the option of transferring to one of the hundreds of vacancies that open up in Corrections each month. Otherwise, the positions won't be filled because the department is under a hiring freeze.