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Teamsters challenge DOC over probation changes

A union that represents the state's probation officers is leaving it up to a judge to decide whether it's legal for probation officers to have to cut back on the number of visits they make each month to the homes of parolees. As Sascha Cordner reports, the Teamsters Union claims the move is a danger to the public and could lead to the loss of jobs.

Faced with a $79 million budget deficit, the Florida Department of Corrections is trying to find ways to cut costs.

The department is in the process of closing prisons. And, during this past Legislative Session, lawmakers even talked about privatizing about 30 South Florida prisons to further fill the budget hole, but the idea died in the Senate.

So, in February, Department of Corrections Secretary Ken Tucker came up with another way to try and save money.

“The Department of Corrections implemented a new directive basically saying that all field visits for maximum, medium, and minimum offenders should stop immediately through the end of June, and so we’re very much concerned that these offenders are out in the community unsupervised by our probation and parole officers.”

Michael Filler is the Public Service Division Director for the Teamsters Union. The union is currently representing correctional officers as well as probation officers within the Department of Corrections.

Filler’s group recently filed a legal challenge against the department for reducing the supervised home visits for probationers. They claim it’s a violation of state law because the department did not go through the appropriate rule-making process, and failed to notify the public and allow for proper comment.

Filler says the temporary discontinuation of most home visits could also have a negative future impact on the state’s probation and parole officers.

“If the Department is allowed to continue to do this, they may eventually get to the point of saying, well you know, these offenders don’t need to be supervised, so we can reduce or possible eliminate the entire probation and parole officers.”

Michael Mitchell is a former Florida probation officer, who worked in Miami-Dade for six years. The 38-year-old says he can remember the nights he spent doing face-to-face home visits with another fellow officer.

“We would actually go out and do the home visits the way they’re supposed to be done, once a week or how many frequencies contacts would require, but then we made it a matter of point to double back as soon as we finished with the list that we had in our hands that day.”

Mitchell says he recalls numerous times when he and his partner doubled back and actually found violations of people not being at home, including sex offenders, and that’s when the offenders knew they were under supervision.

“Here it is that now it is now I know this person was here at 11 ‘o clock and we double backed and now it’s 1 o clock in the morning. And, he’s no longer at the house, there’s nobody there, and now we actually have to find out where this individual might have been, contact him on the phone, oh he left the house,  and now we’re talking about a violation of probation because a sex offender just left his home and he’s wondering wherever he could be.”

Mitchell says it’s examples like that, which show that regular home visits should be a priority. He says the department eliminating most face-to-face visits puts the community’s safety in jeopardy.

But, Florida Department of Corrections spokeswoman Ann Howard says the agency has no intention of compromising the public’s safety.

“We are continuing to make face-to-face visits with those who have been designated as sexual offenders and those under community control. All probationers are going to continue to be monitored. That has not changed. We do consider public safety to be a priority for the agency and it’s obvious why.”

However, lawyer and lobbyist for the Teamsters, Ron Silver, disagrees. The former state Senator says he doesn’t think the cost savings should outweigh the public’s safety.

“If the department is trying to save money, that’s not sufficient as far as I’m concerned to put people In jeopardy  their well-being, whether it be children going to school or individuals going to a shopping center, or whatever the case might be. We’ve got to keep track of these people and we’ve got to make sure that they’re abiding by the law because they’re getting a second chance basically to behave and we’ve got to make sure that they do because there have been instances in the past where even under great supervision, these people have gone out and committed crimes, not all of them, but a great portion of them.”

Howard says the department still has procedures in place to make sure that the offenders do not run wild, and cause residents to fear for their safety.

“If we have a court order, we’re going to continue to follow that as it relates to specific individual probationers. If our probation officers think there is a reason, perhaps they get a tip or they’re suspicious about something, they do have the authority to go in and investigate further. We’re going to continue to work with our law enforcement agencies that are local to each community and going out and doing different things that we do with them. That is going to continue.”

Howard says steps will also be taken to verify probationers’ residences and employment without visiting their homes, but declined to say how that will be done for security reasons.

An administrative law judge is expected to consider the Teamsters challenge. If the challenge is deemed valid, a hearing must be held within 30 days. If the judge rules against the department within those 30 days, the agency must restore the regularly scheduled home visits to probationers.

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.