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While Some Praise Florida's Criminal Justice Budget, Others Find It Lacking

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Florida’s criminal justice budget issues cover a broad spectrum of agencies from Florida’s troubled prison system to the state’s courts system. While some areas of the budget got funded, other areas seen as priorities were lacking.

Much of the budget talks among Florida lawmakers have centered around health care dollars and environmental funding. But, there’s been some talk over the state’s criminal justice budget, too—particularly Florida’s troubled prison system.

It’s been plagued by multiple inmate deaths, allegations of abuse by prison guards, and cover ups.           

Sen. Joe Negron (R-Stuart) is the Senate’s Budget chief for Criminal Justice issues. He says the Florida Department of Corrections—which makes up the largest part of the criminal justice budget—fared pretty well this year.

“We have a $42 million increase in that area of the budget,” said Negron. “$10 million of that is for maintenance repair and construction. We funded 163 positions for corrections officers that the Secretary indicated were necessary for her to transform that agency and make it function more appropriately. We also provided funds to replace transport vehicles.”

Maintenance and repair of facilities has been a huge priority for new DOC Secretary Julie Jones. In years past, prison officials have had to dip into fund that would go toward hiring new employees to help take care of understaffing—which some say has contributed to the abusive culture of some prison guards.

And, Jones says she’s happy the Legislature funded most of her requests.

“Our request…that was a fixed capital outlay request of $15 million, and they closed out today at $10 million, which gives me 2.7 million to rebuild the hospital at Union Correctional Institute and then gives me $7 plus million to start to do the backlog of repairs on facilities,” said Jones.

Still, she’s hopeful things will work out with not getting everything that she asked for.

“Obviously, I asked for $15 million. And, so, there are going to be come repairs that are not made,” she added. “We’ll prioritize the dollars that we get out of this process, and we’ll go forward the best that we can.”

Rep. Larry Metz (R-Yalaha) is the House Budget Chair for Criminal Justice issues. He says there’s also funding for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, now tasked with investigating inmate deaths.

“In the Florida Department of Law Enforcement area of the budget, we are funding 17 positions and $2.2 million for the department to conduct independent investigations of in-custody deaths within in the Florida Department of Corrections. We also fund improvements to the crime lab security and we also funded $300,000 for a statewide rape kit assessment,” said Metz.

There’s just under three million dollars for re-entry programs—a huge priority for Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner (D-Tampa).

Several lawmakers pointed out there’s still no money in the budget for across the board pay raises for state employees. But, some who fall under criminal justice are getting a boost in pay.   

House Budget Chair, Rep. Richard Corcoran (R-Land O' Lakes), says firefighters were given a two-thousand dollar increase and some state highway patrol troopers were given a five-thousand dollar raise as well. Raises were also given to specialty groups, like those who are K-9 certified.

“Whether it was the firefighters or the highway patrol, there’s a significant turnover rate,” said Corcoran. “They’re not keeping pace with the rest of the salaries in competitive environments and they were losing employees. And, those were basically the principle reasons for those areas.”

Correctional officers were also not included in that group, but Corcoran says their turnover rates were not “as significant” as the firefighters and state troopers.

Still, Sen. Greg Evers (R-Baker), who chaired the Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee, says he hopes next year both House and Senate budget chairs will focus on a pay bump for correctional officers.

“And, I had the assurance…that last year we would take care of that,” said Evers. “And, it didn’t happen. So, I would like to have an assurance this year that we’re going to get it next year by hook or crook.  I think that’s very important to our correctional officers that are out there that feel like they’re looked down upon as if maybe not true state employees or true law enforcement.”

Some lawmakers talked about how more should have been done for Florida prisons, like more funding toward mental health care for Florida inmates and sentencing reform issues.

“We do have serious Eighth Amendment issues and prison reform needs, starting with our health care costs for inmates,” said Rep. Katie Edwards (D-Plantation). “Did we address that? No! And, I think the appropriate way to address that next session is through sentencing reform. And, let’s look at whose in our prisons: these low level drug offenders. Does it make sense in our budget each year to continue incarcerating low level drug offenders? No! We can use that money elsewhere.”

But, Rep. Darryl Rouson (D-St. Petersburg) says while there’s enough in this budget to vote against it, he’s supporting the budget for various reasons—which includes prison funding and what he calls “accountability” for private prison health care contracts.

“We’ve done some good things,” said Rouson. “In fact, I’m proud to say today that last year, we gave Department of Corrections $5 million to put a crack in what was a $85 million need or a $300 million over five years. But, this year, we’ve doubled it. We’re starting to attack blind spots. We’re going to hold accountable Corizon and Wexford on their healthcare of inmates.”

Meanwhile, the court system, which asked for funding for more judges, did not get any towards that goal. And, Senate Budget chair Negron along with other lawmakers have promised that next year, the courts system—rather than DOC—will be the top priority.

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

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.