Legislature left $28 million hole in prison budget. Now essential programs are cut.

Florida’s legislators are required to perform only one job each year — pass a balanced budget — but, based on new information released this week, they blew it.

The Legislature passed and Gov. Rick Scott signed an $87 billion budget that was $28 million short in prison funding. Now, to close the gap, the Florida Department of Corrections is eliminating programs that prepare inmates for their return to the community.

The agency had warned lawmakers in February that they needed more money to cover court-ordered healthcare services and to renew the healthcare contract for inmates. Legislators ignored the warning and instead made cuts, leaving the agency with a big deficit in its $2.3 billion budget, and not enough money to pay for inmate healthcare, which the state is legally required to provide.

To make up the shortfall, Corrections Secretary Julie Jones announced this week that she was cutting substance abuse and mental health treatment programs and eliminating re-entry and work-release services that prepare high-security inmates for life out of prison.

“In order to secure a health services contractor, fund the increased pharmaceutical budget, and adjust for reductions, we’ve unfortunately had to make some very difficult decisions,” Jones said in a statement.

Documents released by Corrections staff show that 33 community providers will have programs cut or eliminated — including a $9.1 million, or 40 percent, reduction in mental health treatment, $1.6 million cut from transitional housing services, $7.6 million cut from substance abuse services, $6 million from “therapeutic” treatment and $2.3 million cut from re-entry centers that provide basic education.

The agency will also cut its chaplains and librarians, saving $500,000.

Sens. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, told the Herald/Times that legislative leaders are now working with the governor’s office to come up with a temporary solution, such as a proposed budget amendment that would fund the treatment programs for the first part of the fiscal year to give lawmakers time to find the extra money in November, when they return for the organizational session.

“If we can come up with an agreement in the next 30 days, I don’t think there will be a dramatic impact to the existing providers,” said Brandes, chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that writes the prison budget. “This is a low point for the Department of Corrections but one that only the Legislature can fix.”

During her time at the state agency, Jones has sought to expand these programs because she says she believes they are the most effective at keeping felons from returning to prison. Faced with this deficit, she dispatched staff to work-release facilities around the state, giving the privately run facilities an ultimatum: either sign new contracts that cut programs in half or lose their contracts entirely.

Private providers that offer the re-entry services warn that the cuts will mean job cuts and layoffs. Prison reform advocates say the cuts will cost communities, who may see a spike in crime as offenders released without a safety net cycle back to substance abuse and criminal activity.


– Miami Herald

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