A panel of legislators would be empowered to investigate and subpoena staff at the Department of Corrections in an effort to provide aggressive oversight and demand reform at the troubled agency, under a compromise prison reform plan being floated by top negotiators.
The tentative deal was hatched Thursday between Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, and Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, as they huddled together in the House chamber during the morning legislative session.
The proposal would replace a provision in the Senate’s prison reform bill, SB 7020, that proposes creation of a nine-member independent oversight commission approved by the governor with the power to investigate the agency, Evers said.
The compromise would replace the independent commission with a legislative select committee, staffed by at least four investigators. It would have the power to subpoena staff, monitor inmate and staff grievances, investigate complaints, take public testimony, meet regularly and monitor DOC’s ability to follow performance standards.
“We have an agreement in concept but it's a far cry from where we were six months ago when no one was even talking about this, and nobody would have even considered an oversight board,” said Evers, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. “It’s everything the commission would be but made up of House and Senate members.’’
Evers spearheaded the call for prison reform after a series of reports in the Miami Herald and other news organizations about suspicious inmate deaths, allegations of cover-up and sabotaged investigations within the inspector general’s office. SB 7020 has passed the Senate and a similar measure is moving through the House, but with oversight offered by five regional boards made up of DOC staff.
The compromise must get conceptual approval from House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, and Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, and then be approved by the full House and Senate.
Trujillo, chairman of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, said there are other details that must be resolved including whether to accept a provision in the House bill, HB 7131, that expands the Department of Corrections from three to five regions and creates an oversight panel over each region.
The House also would agree to several other provisions of the Senate bill. The Senate would agree to include a pilot program for body cameras and to make staff of the DOC’s inspector general’s office exempt from the career service system, allowing the secretary to hire and fire them at will. Both Trujillo and Evers said they have no intention of allowing the secretary to use that change to target whistle-blowers.
Evers said the commission would sunset after either three or five years, unless renewed by the Legislature.
“It will stand as long as there are problems that need to be addressed but it’s not supposed to stand into perpetuity,” Trujillo said.
By assigning legislators to the oversight commission, rather than volunteers, they avoid giving vendors seeking contracts undue access to influence the agency, Trujillo said.
“One of the biggest fears in the Senate version is you have people appointed by the governor, confirmed by the Senate, and many of the people that serve on these boards are industry people,’’ he said. “They’re not true investigators. They’re not police officers. They’re mostly vendors or people who have some sort of interest in the system and I think we need to avoid that.”
Trujillo acknowledged that legislators have been responsible for underfunding the agency, leading DOC Secretary Julie Jones and former DOC chief Mike Crews to call for the injection of millions in additional money for staffing and infrastructure.
“But I don’t think funding leads to deaths,’’ Trujillo said. “The deaths weren’t caused by a prison riot in which there wasn’t sufficient security in order to safely protect the inmates. The deaths were homicides caused at the hands of guards.
“Do they have funding issues? Absolutely. Do they have facility issues? Absolutely,’’ he said. “But the issues we’re trying to solve is how do we make them safe places where these inmates don’t become victims to predators inside the corrections system — either other inmates or actual guards.”
The staffing and facility deficits are real, he said, “but that’s not the main problem that we’re seeing. The main problem is how do we protect the dignity and the humanity of these individuals in these facilities.”
Evers said the benefit of the increased legislative oversight is that lawmakers will have a better understanding of the effect of their budget decisions on the agency.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and @MaryEllenKlas