Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Corrections employees want fewer cuts

Associated Press Writer

The state could have to close a prison, and some probation officers would see more than a 50 percent increase in the cases they handle if budget cuts proposed by the Legislature are adopted, officials said Tuesday.

A group of employees with the Department of Corrections gathered at the Capitol to urge lawmakers to reconsider their cuts. As the Legislature puts together a budget that is about $5 billion less than the previous year, budget bills proposed by both the Senate and House would eliminate more than 600 probation officer positions from the department. That's about a third of all probation officers in the state. The Senate is also proposing to cut more than 1,200 prison jobs.

Proposals in both chambers keep the department's current budget of $2.2 billion roughly the same for next year, while the state's average daily prison population is expected to jump from approximately 97,000 to 102,000.

Guarding a prison is already a dangerous job, and the proposed budget cuts would only make it more dangerous, said Jim Baiardi, who represents correctional officers with the Florida Police Benevolent Association, a union that represents law enforcement officers.

"Eventually we won't be able to take these cuts anymore, and somebody's going to get hurt," Baiardi said.

If the Senate's cut of 1,200 positions makes it into the final budget, the department would most likely be forced to close a prison, said Gretl Plessinger, a spokeswoman for the department.

At a time when more and more inmates are being released from prison, the state should be adding probation officers not taking them away, said Richard Gordon, who represents probation officers with the Florida Police Benevolent Association.

State law mandates maximum case loads for probation officers who deal with high-risk offenders, so the number of cases they deal with wouldn't change. The most significant change would be officers who deal with moderate and low-risk offenders. Those case loads could jump from an average of 89 cases to 139. If the cuts are approved, those officers would have to stop making field visits, Plessinger said. The officers would only see offenders once a month during office visits, she said.

Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, said the Legislature can't deal with state's money problems by simply cutting the budgets for all departments across the board. Lawmakers need to prioritize, and public safety should be one of the top priorities.

"It is unconscionable that this Legislature would cut correctional officers who hold our very lives in their hands," Joyner said.

Department of Corrections Secretary Walter McNeil said he's been working with lawmakers and believes common sense will ultimately prevail.

"Everybody understands the importance of public safety in our state," McNeil said, "And everybody understands the issues of prison overcrowding and the fact that we need our corrections officers and probation officers out there."

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