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Lawsuit Settlement Costs May Impact Fla. Prison Agency's Other 2018 Funding Priorities

MGN Online

The costs to settle outstanding prison lawsuits could mean less money to spend on Florida Department of Corrections’ priorities. That’s the message from the new Florida Senate Budget chair.

The Governor’s proposed public safety budget for the 2018 legislative session is expected to cost $5.3 billion. About half would go to the Florida Department of Corrections.

The Corrections agency has in the past asked for millions of dollars to cover the costs of maintenance repairs, deal with staffing shortages, and address mental health services.

And, Florida Prison Chief Julie Jones is making similar asks this year.

“The Governor’s ‘Securing Florida’s Future Budget’ focuses primarily on ensuring the Department can continue to meet and expand health services to the individuals in our custody,” said Jones. “This keeps us in line with national standards and our constitutional responsibilities. Funding recommendations also include infrastructure investments, contraband interdiction tools to create safer prisons, and also programming aimed at reducing recidivism.”

But, among the biggest funding requests are settlement costs for three different prison lawsuits.

One would ensure all facilities are ADA compliant. That means $6 million will go toward ensuring correctional institutions are more accessible to inmates with disabilities.

But, that’s just this year. Jones says lawmakers will be on the hook for two million more the following year.

Another $19.3 million settlement agreement addresses funding the treatment of about 500 inmates with Hepatitis C. Currently, the prison agency does not have any funding for that.

“The Department is actively engaging our stakeholders on this issue in order to find cost effective solutions, and this includes our partner state agencies, our national colleagues, and pharmaceutical companies,” Jones added. “We’re actively meeting with pharmaceutical companies who manufacture these drugs and have urged them to join us to address this critical, public safety issue.”

And, a bulk of the money is $78 million to cover the cost of better care for mental health patients. That includes funding for hundreds of staffing positions at these institutions, and facility upgrades and repairs.

According to Jones, the $78 million is just the start of what’s needed to fulfill that settlement.

“Instead of trying to present a huge number to the legislature, the Governor’s office was very tough on me in trying to get me to realistically parse out over three fiscal years the ultimate cost to resolve that lawsuit,” Jones continued. “And, this budget is the request for Year 1. Year 2 is $38 [million]. And, then Year 3 is $18 [million], I think.”

Jones says because this is only a negotiated settlement agreement, the final cost could be even higher.

And, Sen. Rob Bradley (R-Fleming Island) said given that, this will not help create a balanced budget.

“Because there is not sufficient revenues to handle everything that is going to be asked of us for this area of the budget,” he said. “That’s fine. That’s why we have a process and this takes several months. But, I want to flag that as an issue.”

Bottomline, Bradley added, “We need to be realistic about it and know that if we have to spend more on medical, I’m not sure we can do some of these other things.”

Last month, Bradley took over as the new Florida Senate Budget Chair, while an investigation into Sen. Jack Latvala’s (R-Clearwater) sexual misconduct allegations is ongoing.

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.