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DJJ funding sparks debate over criminal justice budget

A Senate Budget committee that oversees the spending for the courts and prisons rolled out an initial budget  making $140 million  in cuts. But as Sascha Cordner reports, it was not the cuts that were a matter of concern to the panel... it was actually the added funding to the Department of Juvenile Justice.

About two months ago, Governor Rick Scott’s budget recommendations for the prisons and the courts called for $160 million  in cuts.

Republican Senator Ellyn Bogdanoff revealed Tuesday that the Senate’s budget proposal is a bit less at $140 million  in spending cuts.

“We also have to fill the gaps in both the clerks and the courts because they were underfunded. So, the key is that to fund them properly this year and find the money somewhere else. So, we’ve actually done a great job of not really cutting anybody. But, the bulk of it is going to come out of DOC, and rightly so. Their occupancy rate is much lower than it should be, thank God, because we actually do have less people going to prison. And, if we focus more on the front end, we can continue to reduce our prison population.”

Bogdanoff is the new chair of Budget Subcommittee on the Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations, a position formerly held by Republican Senator Mike Fasano.

There are questions surrounding Fasano’s removal from his chairmanship had to do with his strong opposing views on privatizing state prisons in the South Florida region. But, Senate President Mike Haridopolos, a huge proponent of prison privatization, says Fasano’s boot had to deal with the veteran GOP lawmaker not being able to make tough budget choices, not because of Fasano’s prison privatization beliefs that there is no cost savings to the massive plan.

Bogdanoff says her budget does not reflect the projected savings of the prison privatization effort.  But, that does not mean the massive effort to privatize South Florida prisons should be off the table. To her, all it just means is --

“That we all need to keep our options open.”

Prison privatization was not an issue at this meeting, however, a contentious part of the budget included giving additional funds to the Department of Juvenile Justice’s redirection program. It’s supposed to be cheaper option for children facing misdemeanor charges, who would normally be put on probation or put in low-risk residential facilities.

But, Republican Senator John Thrasher did not understand why lawmakers had allocated $10 million for the program:

“That’s a big number! Can we get some more specifics on that, on how it will work, and what are going to be the specifics for measuring and those kinds of things?”

Senator Bogdanoff responded:

“I think the key is, Senator Thrasher, which you would be asking is what is the success of the program, but it’s my understanding in speaking to Chairman Alexander and the [Senate] President’s Office, that they have some statistics that show success. But, obviously, this is a huge item, probably one of the largest in the budget, which I think deserves probably more information in this committee, before I make the full recommendation to the full budget committee.”

And Republican Senator Mike Bennett questioned whether it was relevant to fund programs that already send kids away, rather than put the money in prevention programs, like the Boys and Girls Club. 

“When I look at the Boys and Girls Club we’ve got down there for gang prevention and keeping the kids off the street... A lot of these kids don’t want to get in trouble, but they get so much pressure from their peers. But, if we can come up with other programs that allow them to have some attention after school, someplace else to go to, maybe we don’t have to spend so much money on re-direction. I would like to see some kind of comparison to that, when I look at the number of children that the Boys and Girls club serves versus the dollars that we have on the other side.”

Senator Thrasher says he still has a problem that the program would be receiving almost double what it has now. He asked Bogdanoff if the panel could receive the proper figures before proceeding with this aspect of the budget.

“This is a 100-percent increase! I’m not a mathematician, but this is a big increase, and I would urge us to make sure this is the right way and the right place to put this kind of money. And, I would only put it there if there was ample evidence that these programs are working before we go and expand this 100-percent.”

After hearing the concerns of all the members on the panel, with the exception of Democratic Senator Chris Smith, Bogdanoff agreed to hold off on allocating the numbers before having all the facts.

I think that there’s probably a sense on this particular committee that we would rather go with prevention and re-direct those dollars to prevention before the kids get into the system, if it’s not more effective than it is, or the providers are actually out there, because last we saw they were not.”

Bogdanoff made those comments to a Department of Juvenile Justice representative, who promised that he would get the necessary data to the budget panel before members made their decision of where to place the $10 million  in funds.

Sascha Cordner has more than ten years of public radio experience. It includes working at NPR member station WUFT-FM in Gainesville for several years. She's worked in both radio and TV, serving in various capacities as a reporter, producer and anchor. She's also a graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in telecommunications. She is the recipient of 15 awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and Edward R. Murrow. Her award-winning stories include her coverage on the infamous “Dozier School for Boys” and a feature titled "Male Breast Cancer: Lost in the Sea of Pink." Currently, Sascha serves as the host and producer of local and state news content for the afternoon news program "All Things Considered" at WFSU. Sascha primarily covers criminal justice and social services issues. When she's not reporting, Sascha likes catching up on her favorite TV shows, singing and reading. Follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter:@SaschaCordner.