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Probation officers say dangerous lapses persist

Probation officers say the failure to address major shortages with DOC resources is leading to more violent crimes.
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TAMPA BAY, Florida – State probation officers say the failure to address major resource shortages at the Department of Corrections has led to more preventable crimes in the community, including a slew of recent sexual assaults and murders. And with the legislature set to take up budget issues in its special session today, a small window of opportunity opens to address the problems and protect Florida families from unsupervised felons.

In addition to previously-exposed probation dangers linked to years of budget cuts and penny-pinching at the Department of Corrections, officers say a lack of training funds has led the department to prohibit officers from searching the phones and computers of sex offenders, even though most were ordered by judges to avoid certain electronic communications.

"It's a free pass," said recently-retired probation officer Paul Wells, who spent 16 years monitoring sex offenders and working with the state to tighten supervision of their electronic communications. "(An offender) feeds his addiction to child pornography by looking at it on his computer; he's getting more worked up, just like a drug addict needing another fix, and eventually he's going to get to the point where he's going to go find another child."

Two years ago, amid another round of state budget cuts driven by Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature, the Department of Corrections issued a memo that informed officers "the decision has been made to discontinue computer searches by all Department staff," due to the "lack of training and resources required."

The memo recommended probation officers coordinate with local law enforcement agencies for computer and cell phone searches, a policy which remains in-place. But probation officers tell 10 Investigates relying on deputies and police officers for day-to-day searches of sex offenders is impractical; while trying to coordinate with them for even somewhat regular computer searches is too difficult given their massive probation caseloads, another symptom of years of budget cuts.

Previously-reported effects of DOC budget cuts include:

  • Up to 20 probation offices sometimes sharing a single state vehicle, many of which have upwards of 200,000 miles logged.
  • Poor pay and rare raises for officers, creating retention and recruiting problems.
  • Over-loaded caseloads that reduce officers' effectiveness, possibly even violating state law.
  • DOC not paying for weapons for officers who chose to carry firearms.
  • Officers discouraged from making unscheduled home visits to probationers to save on travel costs. At one point, the DOC ceased all home visits of felons to save on travel.
  • Marco Parilla, the repeat felon charged with killing Tarpon Springs officer Charles Kondek with an illegal gun, was seen at his home just once by a probation officer in the six months leading up to Kondek's murder.
  • A mother in Bartow was stabbed to death in front of her children two days after she called her husband's probation office, warning them of violations and dangers. But the agency wasn't able to check out the violations before the woman was murdered.

But the discovery that sex offenders' computers are going unchecked is among the most troubling symptom of DOC penny-pinching to Wells."It's insane," Wells said. "It's not a case of, 'will this guy re-offend?' It's just 'when is it going to happen?'"

Last month, the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office arrested a 20-year-old man, already on sex offender probation for a sex crime against a child in 2013, for having a sexual relationship with another underage girl. Deputies say the girl's father walked in on the man, half-naked, in bed with his daughter. Even though the relationship was allegedly consensual, it would still be a felony, and it had reportedly gone on for a year. However, the man's probation officer never knew about it because he never once conducted a search on the offender's cell phone or a computer.

In addition to running Florida's prisons, the Department of Corrections is responsible for supervision of the 143,000 Florida felons living in the community. Experts say better supervision leads to lower recidivism rates, but the budget cuts have taken a major toll on the DOC's ability to keep tabs on dangerous felons once they get out of prison.


Despite high-profile murders at the hands of felons on probation, the problems in Florida's probation program have gone largely ignored by lawmakers thus far in 2015. Unable to agree on health care and Medicaid issues, the state's two legislative chambers chose to hash out their differences and a new 2016 budget in a special session, slated to run June 1-20.

"If we can get some of these issues resolved with respect to health care and set a ceiling on some tax cuts (so we) know how much money we have to spend…than we can begin to fund down that (priority) list," said State Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, the Senate's budget chair.

Although serious, the probation problems haven't gotten the attention of most lawmakers, according to State Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole.

"These problems aren't going to go away," Ahern said. "It's probably going to get worse before it gets better if we just keep putting Band-Aids on it. So I'm going to advocate (a more significant fix)."

The governor suggested $50 million in new DOC funding, but nearly all of it was directed at state prison operations. Scott's budget included just a 0.2% increase to the DOC's $201 million probation budget; the Senate agreed to Scott's numbers; and the House's proposed budget included just a 0.7% increase.

"Before we start doing tax breaks and tax cuts, we need to fund public safety," said Wells, the former probation officer. "Especially to keep our children safe."

"A 0.2% increase, as Governor Scott has proposed, is simply not enough," said State Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg. "We must act now to provide officers with the necessary resources to do their jobs before more tragedies occur. If the Legislature continues to ignore this problem, it will only become worse. When we head up to Tallahassee…the state's felony probation program should be a priority."

Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist served 18 years in the state legislature and frequently fought for additional probation funding, especially to supervise sex offenders.

"It's very dangerous to make cuts in that area," Crist, R-Tampa, said of felon supervision. "We're going to see horrific crimes committed against society from individuals who frankly aren't safe on the streets without a set of eyes on them."


The Department of Corrections says it is working on replacing some of the oldest vehicles used by probation officers, which 10 Investigates reported often had 200,000 miles on them and required frequent trips to the shop. But officers report the agency's tiny fleet still prohibits them from properly checking on probationers. DOC Secretary Julie Jones said she had hoped to add more vehicles to local offices by the end of the year.

When asked about the slow progress on improvements and the lack of new probation funding, Gov. Scott said, "What we've been doing is going through...I've sat down with Julie Jones, who is the head of the Department of Corrections and said, 'What are the highest priorities?'"

But so far, those priorities have been prisons, not community corrections.

In addition to new prison funding, Governor Scott also signed an executive order in May to reform prison oversight. The Department of Corrections also conducted statewide "listening tours" with prison officers to address their concerns. However, since 10 Investigates' initial probation reporting in March, the DOC has expanded the listening tours to local probation offices as well.

Many probation officers have complained about longstanding attitudes of retribution toward whistleblowers, so many of the agency's serious problems went unnoticed for years. Secretary Jones, who took over the DOC's top job in January, promised there would be no retribution for bringing problems to her attention.

The DOC also reports positive progress on another major issue: outfitting probation officers with smartphones. Previously, officers had no radios or smartphones, hindering both their ability to do their jobs and stay safe. But even though the phones were reportedly purchased in April, they have not all been assigned to officers yet.

"What (probation) needs is someone in Tallahassee, fighting to make sure our citizens are protected and that justice is served," said State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who said he has already begun to speak to both DOC and Senate budget staff about increasing probation funding and addressing the many outstanding issues.

Probation officers: let 10 Investigates reporter Noah Pransky know what changes - if any - you've seen with the resources available for you to do your job. Communicate confidentially via Facebook or email npransky@wtsp.com. You can also follow his updates on follow his updates on Twitter.


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3/30/15 - DOC skirts law, risks safety on probation caseloads
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3/25/15 - DOC, Governor respond to 10 Investigates findings
3/24/15 - Lawmakers promise swift action on felony probation problems
3/23/15 - Probation officers blow whistle on dangerous lapses in supervision

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