TAMPA BAY, Florida - For a ninth straight year, there is little help in the budget for the officers tasked with protecting Floridians from felons released from prison. And there's evidence the low pay, combined with limited resources, is prohibiting probation officers from keeping communities as safe as they should be.
10Investigates first exposed how state penny-pinching at the Department of Corrections (DOC) - even during robust economic times - was leading to high-risk felons going largely unsupervised in local communities. And how nine years without a real pay raise had left probation officers often earning 40% less than what they could make at competing agencies.
Florida's probation officers' salaries start at $33,478 per year, while a Tampa Police Officer now starts at more than $50,000 a year. Most other large agencies in Greater Tampa Bay start officers between $45,000 and $50,000 a year.
The poor working conditions and low pay contributed to high turnover, which led to higher-than-acceptable caseloads and sometimes, insufficient staffing levels. 10Investigates highlighted several high-profile examples of felons committing new crimes while under loose supervision from the DOC.
New DOC Secretary Julie Jones started addressing some of the equipment problems brought to her attention by both the investigative series and DOC staff early in 2015, but she did not request significant funding to give officers a raise, despite another record year of state revenues.
"We go through the budget every year to make sure that we pay people fairly," said Gov. Rick Scott. "We go through and every agency makes a budget proposal to the legislature tied to what they think is fair compensation."
Florida also still doesn't provide firearms for probation officers, despite the high-risk work they often have to do in difficult neighborhoods at all hours of the night. Officers who wish to carry must purchase their own firearms.
"I know the way the process works," Gov. Scott said, when asked about officers having to buy their own guns. "There's been a lot of conversation about that. They've had conversations with the legislature about that."
A former officer speaks out
10Investigates spoke with dozens of probation officers during the course of this investigation about the second - and sometimes third - jobs they have to work to support their families. But every single individual said he or she was afraid to speak on-the-record about the DOC for fear of retaliation.
However, with many probation officers leaving the DOC for agencies that may better, it was not hard to find some who agreed to an interview.
"I think the citizens have been very fortunate that more bad things don't happen in our community," said former probation officer Bernardo Nieves, who recently left for another law enforcement agency - and a big raise - after 16 years monitoring sex offenders on probation.
Nieves said almost every officer he knew worked a second or third job, and he even knew some who wanted - but could not purchase - firearms because they could not afford the $500-$1,000 price tag.
"This is a law enforcement agency. We are here to protect the citizens. And there's no better way to protect the citizens than for you to protect your officers."
How can you help?
10Investigates has made it easy to let your elected officials in Tallahassee know that funding probation officers should be a priority.
Click here to find your local state representative or your local state senator.
You can also scroll down to find email addresses and social media contacts for every representative from the 8-county Greater Tampa Bay region.
PREVIOUS COVERAGE (some links may not display properly on mobile)
3/23/15 - Probation officers blow whistle on dangerous lapses in supervision
3/24/15 - Lawmakers promise swift action on felony probation problems
3/25/15 - DOC, Governor respond to 10 Investigates findings
3/26/15 - Powerful politician pitches major probation overhaul
3/30/15 - DOC skirts law, risks safety on probation caseloads
4/7/15 - Fixes not quick for Florida's probation problems
4/8/15 - Probation officers rally after 10 News stories
4/9/15 - Probation training funds not dedicated to training
6/3/15 - Entering special session, dangerous lapses still exist
6/19/15 - Some help finally coming for probation
10/27/15 - Is governor addressing tax cuts before DOC budget woes?
10/29/15 - Lawmakers call on governor to pay DOC employees
3/9/16 - Florida freezes state workers out of record budget again
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