Staff problems in Florida prisons are bad, but parole officers might have it even worse.
Although Florida state prisons have received a lot of attention lately, slashed budgets in the Department of Corrections probation and parole divisions have a potential to cause bigger problems.
WTSP/10 Investigates is reporting on a months-long study that found probation and parole officers with many DOC community corrections programs are inadequately prepared to provide court-ordered supervision.
While other agencies monitor Florida’s misdemeanor probations, the DOC handles the state’s most dangerous ex-felons while they work their way back into society. With 143,000 former inmates currently on community supervision statewide — including violent or sex offenders – that is a sizable segment of the population without adequate supervision.
Among the issues are firearms for probation officers; the DOC does not provide weapons for them. If they need to carry a firearm, officers must purchase them on their own.
That is why only 46 percent of probation officers carry a weapon, an agency spokesperson tells reporter Noah Pransky.
Working vehicles are another agency embarrassment. After reviewing hundreds of state DOC documents, WTSP found most field offices have only one or two timeworn vehicles for use among up to 20 officers. Most of the vehicles (see list below) are decades-old “hand-me-downs” from other divisions or agencies. With a constant risk of mechanical breakdowns, officers often conduct home visits of “maximum risk” ex-felons in personal vehicles, if at all.
Limited access to working vehicles also affects the ability of probation officers the ability to conduct surprise visits. Officers often reserve vehicles, leading to only scheduled visits, giving enough time to hide contraband like drugs or weapons.
In recent years, DOC cut mileage reimbursements, another disincentive for officers to continue closely monitoring felons. One probation supervisor in January emailed the DOC Clearwater staff informing, “The state vehicle will not be available for this week. You may use your personal vehicle, but there will be no reimbursement for mileage.”
An examination of travel records found that although officers continue to conduct home visits with personal vehicles, they are sometimes weeks apart, and rarely reimbursed.
A handful of officers submit travel records listing “no mileage reimbursement,” and other note -–sarcastically — “Gift to State of Florida.”
Available vehicles have no law enforcement apparatus, Pransky says, so if DOC officers need to charge ex-felons with violation of probation (VOP), they must coordinate actions with local law enforcement, which often means returning later, giving the offender a chance to escape.
“Citizens need to know this agency is horribly underfunded,” said one of the DOC probation/parole officers Pransky interviewed. “Officers want to do their job (but) get demoralized with the ill-equipment that they have.”
“These cost-saving measures have not affected our officers’ ability to address their core duties and responsibilities,” responded an agency spokesperson, “but have allowed them to continue keeping Florida safe in a more efficient and effective way.”