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While lawmakers starve DOC budget, probationers still pay for supervision

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New documents reveal a legislative attack on a trust fund intended to pay for corrections officer training and equipment, which intensified already aggravated under-funding of the Department of Corrections.

The situation has now led to dangerous failures in felon supervision, reports Noah Pransky of WTSP News.

In 2004, lawmakers closed the trust fund, although the State of Florida continued collecting millions of dollars from probationers over the last 10 years. As the money went to the general revenue fund, the DOC budget continued to shrink.

Availability of working vehicles have diminished, and caseloads have reached “dangerous” levels.

DOC Secretary Julie Jones told WTSP she would authorize new equipment this year and fill any officer vacancies. However, notoriously low salaries have made recruiting and retention of probation officers lag behind other law-enforcement agencies.

The DOC is in charge of supervising felony probationers in the community, many of them high-risk offenders. Each offender pays a fee of $2 every month.

“These funds shall be used by the department to pay for correctional probation officers’ training and equipment, including radios, and firearms training, firearms, and attendant equipment necessary,” according to Florida Statutes.

As money continues to pour into the general revenue fund, the state’s probation officers never had proper radios or communication devices.  In addition, if they decide to carry a firearm, it must come out of their own funds.

Collections averaged $548,000 over the five fiscal years, according to DOC estimates, which is about the same amount spent on training and supplies, even though expenditures often fall short of revenues

Sponsoring the 2004 law to eliminate the dedicated training and equipment trust fund was Joe Negron, who was a Republican representative from Stuart at the time. Negron is now a powerful state senator.

HB 1881 “closed out” the collections, sweeping the funds into general revenue.

Since the funds never closed out, Pransky notes, probationers able to pay the $2 per month charge continue to pay millions of dollars into the state’s general revenue fund, available for expenditures or any projects lawmakers choose.

In the interim, years of underfunding caused serious problems in the agency’s felony probation and parole supervision: one state vehicle shared by up to 20 probationers, with many of the vehicles with more than 200,000 miles. Officers are dissuaded from unscheduled home visits to former felons, as a way to save on costs. The DOC ended all home visits to felons at one time.

Pransky notes on repeat felon Marco Parilla, who is charged with murdering Tarpon Springs Police officer Charles Kondek with an illegal gun, was visited at home only once by a probation officer in the previous six months.

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.

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