Legally required health care costs, and what’s been described as an overpopulated prison system are making money tight for the state’s justice system.
Sen. Jeff Brandes, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee on Criminal and Civil Justice, told lawmakers on the panel Wednesday that the justice spending plan is void of any member projects because it is restricted by costs for the essentials.
“This current path is unsustainable,” said Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican. “This budget reflects zero member projects for a reason: Because we have to fund the core functions of government before we can fund the individual priorities of any one of us.”
Taking up a bulk of the justice budget is the $2.7 billion spending plan the panel drafted for the state’s prison system.
The health care costs at prisons — like $86.5 million for contracted health services and $34.6 million for Hepatitis C treatment — preclude lawmakers from spending on other programs, Brandes said.
“Unfortunately, I think the story of this budget is that health care is eating the Department of Corrections budget,” Brandes said.
Other health care-related costs in the prison budget include nearly $32 million for mental health services and almost $14 million for drugs.
The justice budget committee did not provide any changes to staff pay inside the prison system. But that’s something that typically is authorized by the larger appropriations panel, Brandes said.
Attracting better guards and retaining them — improvements expected from a salary increase — could help the prison system curb contraband problems.
But it’s pricey to move the needle.
“To really have a meaningful increase for the pay in the Department of Corrections, you’re talking $100 million,” Brandes said. He also said changing the hours guards work and other efforts could help stem the influx of contraband.
One budget item expected to improve the prison system is an appropriation for 40 new teachers. “Through the heart of everything is literacy,” Brandes said while highlighting the nearly $3 million proposal.