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Department of Corrections settles case over Bridges of America program shutdown

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The battle over Broward Bridge is over.

The state’s Department of Corrections and Bridges of America announced a settlement Wednesday afternoon.

The state had been planning to pull the plug on Broward Bridge, a residential program offering transitional counseling, drug treatment and other services to inmates on work release.

Bridges, the Orlando-based nonprofit that runs the program, had been waging a PR battle to keep the facility open.

About 89 percent of men who start the Broward program successfully complete it, according to Bridges.

Overall, only 10 percent of men and 5 percent of women who graduate from “community transition centers” get in trouble with the law again.

The department said it was letting its contract with Bridges to run the facility expire on its end date next Monday and not renew it. The agency has said it needs the program’s space for more DOC employee offices.

Broward Bridge won’t be saved, but its clients won’t be out on the street, either. Then again, they may have to move far from home.

The department said in a statement that “effective May 12, all inmates previously participating in Broward Bridge will have been placed in the appropriate assignments and treatment beds” at similar facilities elsewhere in the state.

Future inmates needing help in Broward County will be placed at Turning Point Community Release Center in Pompano Beach, another center run by Bridges.

That facility “will be adding up to 112 transition and substance abuse beds,” the statement said. Another 38 beds will be for work-release inmates, according to the settlement. In return, Bridges agrees to withdraw its protests from the Division of Administrative Hearings. 

“Throughout this entire process, our focus has been to ensure there was no interruption in services,” Corrections Secretary Julie Jones said. “I am pleased that we were able to reach an agreement that will best serve those re-entering society.

“For more than 35 years, FDC has worked collaboratively with Bridges of America to provide transition services to inmates nearing release,” she added. “The Department’s agreement with Bridges allows our years of good work to continue with an increased focus on performance metrics and data-driven strategies that ensure success for those re-entering Florida’s communities.”

The two sides also inked a new two-year deal to keep open Bradenton Bridge, a similar program for female work-release inmates in Manatee County. 

Both agreements will last two years, with three one-year renewal options, Bridges said in a separate news release. 

“It’s unfortunate that it took lawmakers, media pressure, and public outrage to defend these programs, but we are glad that the (department) is finally starting to listen,” said Lori Costantino-Brown, President and CEO of Bridges of America.

But, she added, “this agreement will still negatively impact our work, reduce the number of overall re-entry opportunity, and very much contradicts legislative directives.”

Several state lawmakers publicly opposed the shutdown, including state Sen. Darren Soto, an Orlando Democrat, and House Republican Leader Dana Young of Tampa.

Most of Broward County’s legislative delegation penned a letter to Gov. Rick Scott to protest the Broward Bridge shutdown.

Piling on, State Sen. Greg Evers – a Baker Republican whose Criminal Justice Committee oversees state prisons – said DOC officials had “lied” to him after promising they wouldn’t interfere with such programs.

It’s not immediately clear how the settlement affects lawsuits filed by Broward Bridge participants. They had asked a Tallahassee judge for a court order to prevent the state from closing the program.

“We are very, very thankful for the outpouring of support, especially from our program alumni,” Costantino-Brown said. “Every phone call, email, and meeting helped save these programs.”

Before joining Florida Politics, journalist and attorney James Rosica was state government reporter for The Tampa Tribune. He attended journalism school in Washington, D.C., working at dailies and weekly papers in Philadelphia after graduation. Rosica joined the Tallahassee Democrat in 1997, later moving to the courts beat, where he reported on the 2000 presidential recount. In 2005, Rosica left journalism to attend law school in Philadelphia, afterwards working part time for a public-interest law firm. Returning to writing, he covered three legislative sessions in Tallahassee for The Associated Press, before joining the Tribune’s re-opened Tallahassee bureau in 2013. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

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