TAMPA BAY, Florida - Penny-pinching and legislative budget apathy, even in strong economies, has left Florida's Department of Corrections (DOC) scrapping important mental health and substance abuse programs aimed at keeping felons from committing more crimes.
But the DOC's budget problems go back a decade, when Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature slashed the agency's budget during the Great Recession. Despite a rebounding economy and record revenues, the state has consistently overlooked the DOC and its employees, creating problems that have rippled down into communities.
Since 2011, the state's budget has grown 39 percent, but the DOC's budget has only grown 5 percent.
In 2015, 10Investigates showed how penny-pinching and low wages created recruitment and retention problems in prisons, caseloads so high that probation officers say they couldn't properly supervise felons in the community, and other issues related to old vehicles and poor resources.
The base salary for probation officers still hasn't increased since then, and turnover rates have soared for both probation and correctional officers.
0Investigates revealed Wednesday how the accused murderer of a Highlands Coounty deputy was classified as “minimum risk,” despite a violent history. That meant few probation resources would have to be used on things like home visits or conducting unannounced searches for banned items like guns.
He is accused of killing Deputy William Gentry on Sunday.
10Investigates has questioned lawmakers and the governor for years on DOC funding, but the issue hasn't gotten much attention until recently, when the agency was forced to scrap programs designed to help felons re-adjust to life in the community.
"You're going to cut opioid funding in the middle of an opioid crisis?" State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, asked rhetorically.
Both Brandes and State Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, suggested a special session may be needed to address the short-term needs of the DOC to preserve transitional program funding.
"All of the evidence suggests that transition-type services are the best way to release an inmate back into society," Brandes said. "(Without those programs, prisoners) are going to get released out the front door of prison and they're going to be right back on the street with no support ... and wind up right back in jail.
"It's time for Florida to step up and do the right thing...and support these types of services."
Lawmakers have few answers
10Investigates has asked Scott for more than three years about DOC funding problems, and his recommended budgets for the agency have increased. But he hasn't championed the issue like others, and the Legislature have short-changed his recommendations in each of those three years.
“I was very disappointed the Legislature didn’t fund our request this year,” Scott told 10Investigates Wednesday.
So 10Investigates reached out to prominent lawmakers for answers.
State Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Clearwater, said general DOC funding took a back seat to "member projects" and "pork" this year in Tallahassee.
"You have to fund the core functions (of the agency)," Sprowls said. "We pay our bills, we pay our mortgage, we pay our electricity before we start doing things that might be beneficial to our family but aren't core functions of the household. It should be no different (in government)."
Sprowls said the House proposed a DOC budget number this year closer to the governor's suggestion, but the Senate cut the funding during negotiations.
State Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, said DOC funding was ultimately a victim of school safety priorities.
"In middle of session, (House and Senate) leadership decided after Parkland, they wanted to divert $400 million in the budget," Steube said. "So to come up with $400 million … something needed to be ‘raided,’ for lack of a better term."
Steube said the DOC budget was like so many other departments that didn't get optimal funding this year.
"It becomes a leadership issue. A lot of things that we were working on mid-session suddenly got changed and moved because of the Parkland response...$400 million is not a small amount of money - they had to take the money from somewhere."
Neither Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, nor House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, provided comment for this story.
The following Tampa Bay lawmakers also did not respond or did not provide interviews for this report:
- Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa
- Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby
- Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon
- Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton
- Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa
Scott added that re-entry programs were important to curbing recidivism and that his office was looking into Ables’ probation supervision.