New documents reveal a legislative attack on a trust fund intended to pay for corrections officer training and equipment, which intensified already aggravated under-funding of the Department of Corrections.
The situation has led to dangerous failures in felon supervision, reports Noah Pransky of WTSP News.
In 2004, lawmakers closed the trust fund, although the state of Florida continued collecting millions of dollars from probationers over the past 10 years. As the money went to the general revenue fund, the DOC budget continued to shrink.
Availability of working vehicles has diminished, and caseloads have reached “dangerous” levels.
DOC Secretary Julie Jones told WTSP she would authorize new equipment this year and fill any officer vacancies. However, notoriously low salaries have made recruiting and retention of probation officers lag behind other law-enforcement agencies.
The DOC is in charge of supervising felony probationers in the community, many of them high-risk offenders. Each offender pays a fee of $2 every month.
“These funds shall be used by the department to pay for correctional probation officers’ training and equipment, including radios, and firearms training, firearms, and attendant equipment necessary,” according to Florida Statutes.
As money continued to pour into the general revenue fund, the state’s probation officers never had proper radios or communication devices. In addition, if they decided to carry a firearm, the money to buy it had to come out of their own pockets.
Collections averaged $548,000 over the five fiscal years, according to DOC estimates, about the same amount spent on training and supplies, even though expenditures often fall short of revenue.
Sponsoring the 2004 law to eliminate the dedicated training and equipment trust fund was by Joe Negron, a Republican representative from Stuart at the time. Negron is now a powerful state senator.
HB 1881 “closed out” the collections, sweeping the funds into general revenue.
Since the funds never closed out, Pransky notes, probationers able to pay the $2 per month charge continue to pay millions of dollars into the state’s general revenue fund, available for expenditures or any projects lawmakers choose.
In the interim, years of underfunding caused serious problems in the agency’s felony probation and parole supervision: one state vehicle shared by up to 20 probation, many of which with more than 200,000 miles. Officers were dissuaded from unscheduled home visits to former felons as a way to save on costs. The DOC ended all home visits to felons at one time.
Pransky reported that repeat felon Marco Parilla, charged with slaying Tarpon Springs Police officer Charles Kondek with an illegal gun, was visited at home only once by a probation officer in the previous six months.