TAMPA BAY, Florida – Even before Joseph Ables allegedly shot and killed Highlands County Deputy William Gentry on Sunday, the 69-year-old convicted felon had a long history of aggravated battery, including one arrest for battery on a law enforcement officer.
His record was long enough, according to sources at the Florida Department of Corrections, for the agency label him a “violent felon of special concern” when Ables was again sentenced to felony probation in 2016 for battery on an elderly person.
But instead of assigning extra supervision to Ables, who was living in Lake Placid, the resource-strapped DOC classified him as “minimum risk,” meaning few probation resources would be used on things like home visits or conducting unannounced searches for banned items like weapons.
In fact, records obtained by 10Investigates show most of Ables’ contact with probation officers was at probation offices. Only four times in the last two years did officers meet Ables’ at his home, conducting required residence verifications.
Only once, 22 months ago, did an officer do a walk-through of Ables' home.
Probation officers have the right to search offenders and their homes at any time, but seldom do due to considerable caseloads and limited resources.
Ables is accused of using a gun he wasn’t allowed to have to kill Gentry, an 8-year veteran of the sheriff’s office.
A DOC spokesperson said the department met the supervision requirements ordered by the courts, classifying him as a minimum risk offender based on a "validated risk assessment tool."
Florida DOC Secretary Julie Jones, in a written statement, said the department did not decide Able's probation terms.
“The terms of Joseph Able’s probation were determined by a court, not FDC," she said. "We are charged with carrying out his probation sentence. Any assertion that FDC is somehow responsible for this disturbed individual’s alleged actions is unfair and irresponsible. We strive every day to keep our communities safe, and when a brother or sister in uniform is killed, we are devastated.”
But while courts set minimum standards for probation supervision, the number of visits, searches, and contacts is up to the Department of Corrections, and risk to the community can be taken into account.
Ables had no prior violations during this his recent term of supervision, reporting monthly to a felony probation office in Highlands County and submitting to regular alcohol and drug tests.
10Investigates has spent years documenting penny-pinching and chronic under-funding at the DOC that have resulted in low wages, high turnover, and high caseloads. Equipment and technology problems have also posed challenges over the years.
The department recently made headlines when it was forced to cut mental health and substance abuse programs aimed at helping felons re-adjust to society after they're released from prison. The cuts were a response to a $28 million budget hole created by the state legislature.
Gov. Rick Scott, in his final year in office, requested an increase in the DOC budget this year. But it wasn’t one of his top priorities and it was overlooked by the legislature, which actually reduced DOC funding for the 2018-19 budget.
“I was very disappointed the legislature didn’t fund our request this year,” Scott told 10Investigates Wednesday. “If you want to keep our state safe, you’ve got to fully-fund the Department of Corrections.”
Same question, same answer, no changes
10Investigates has asked Scott for more than three years about DOC funding problems. In 2015, Scott’s DOC secretary, Julie Jones, helped address some equipment and caseload issues.
But the starting salary for a probation officer has remained at $33,478 since Scott took office. That’s 30-40 percent lower than Tampa Bay’s large law enforcement agencies.
Felony probation officer turnover has soared to 17 percent in financial year 2016-17, nearly double the rate from when Scott took office in 2011. Corrections officer turnover skyrocketed to 32 percent last year, even as the officers saw their first bump in salary in a decade.
“We have to make sure all state workers (are) properly-compensated,” Scott said in response to a 10Investigates question about the failure to provide competitive probation wages. “I work through the legislative process every year to try to make sure people are compensated fairly.”
Scott gave a similar response to the question in 2015 when asked the same question.
“We got through the budget every year, and we make sure that we pay people fairly,” Scott said three years ago.
Last year, some probation officers saw their first raises in a decade, but the starting salary for new officers - as well as many veterans' salaries - remained unchanged.
While the state budget has grown 39 percent since Scott took office, the DOC’s budget has grown just 5 percent.
Scott added that re-entry programs were important to curbing recidivism and that his office was looking into Ables’ probation supervision.
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