Florida Politics

Committee confirms Florida prison chief Julie Jones, who promises focus on rehab of inmates

Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones
Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones

Declaring that her agency has a new focus on rehabilitation over punishment, Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones told a Senate committee Wednesday that she has made strides since she was appointed to the troubled agency last year and is working to reduce the prison population so the state can spend its money improving the system.

“Our goal is provide those under our care with the proper guidance and support to insure that when they leave our prisons they don’t come back,” Jones told the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Civil and Criminal Justice during a hearing to confirm her appointment to the job.

The committee unanimously approved Jones’ confirmation and several members commended her for the work she has done since she was first appointed by Gov. Rick Scott in January.

Jones is the fifth secretary to serve the agency under the governor in five years and took over amid allegations of suspicious inmate deaths, excessive use of force and attempts at cover-ups.

The agency also came under fire last year after former corrections Secretary Michael Crews said chronic underfunding by the governor and lawmakers forced them to freeze hiring and shift money for personnel toward building repairs to fix roofs and reach out to the hotel industry to obtain used sheets for beds instea.

Jones has also been on the defensive after several current and former employees testified before a Senate committee in March that before Jones came on the job they had been ordered by the agency’s inspector general to ignore evidence of crimes committed by corrupt officials because doing so would give the agency a “black eye.” Jones defended her inspector general, Jeff Beasley, and several of those same employees have since faced internal investigations and complain they were given do-nothing jobs to keep them quiet.

The committee did not press Jones about any of those concerns but instead focused on her handling of the budget and staffing needs. Jones candidly detailed the needs of the agency — more than 1,000 in additional staff, video cameras and IT support, salary increases and cost of living adjustments to stop the massive turnover — but she refrained from asking the senators who oversee her budget for the money to meet those needs.

“The key to our success is to stop asking for more money, to continue to create efficiencies,’’ Jones told the committee.

After years of budget cuts, Jones acknowledged that the agency remains understaffed. The department spent $16 million to hire more than 3,000 corrections officers in the last year, she said, but because of retirements, extensive turnover and the decision to fire 715 employees for violating departmental policies, the agency saw a net gain of only 1,400 people.

The agency lost 2,000 staff members because of “voluntary separation, which means they’ve left me for higher pay,” Jones said. Of those, 900 were in training and concluded that “the prison system was not where they wanted to work.”

Last year’s budget also included $1.6 million to install audio recorders and video cameras in prison dorms this year, $10 million to maintain and repair aging prisons, and $1.25 million to increase the number of vehicles used for patrol and inmate transport.

This year, Jones said she asked the governor to include in his budget — which he will announce on Monday — $28 million to hire new staff and $34 million for capital improvements. Jones said the governor’s budget will give the agency “everything that I asked for” and, she said, she has asked for all that she needs.

“The statutes say it’s my responsibility to ask for what we need in a fiscal year,’’ she said. “I’ve only been here 10 months. I have to right the ship and every time we make one move in this huge agency, it’s a domino effect that affects other things.”

The proposed budget includes money for 140 new roofs and no money for increased salaries. Jones said that she needs at least 1,000 extra positions to be fully staffed so they don’t go bare when people are in training, sick or on leave, but they are asking for only 273.

“I could ask for 2,000 bodies but I’m not going to be able to hire them so I’d much rather take two or three years, fill them, and show with metrics what I’ve done and then ask for more,” she said.

The committee heard from Kim Schultz, a probation officer in Miami-Dade County, who urged legislators to increase officer pay to reduce caseloads for probation officers in charge of monitoring people after they are released from prison. In Miami, the average caseload is about 130 clients per officer, she said, and the ideal caseload is closer to 80. The average starting salary for a probation officer is $33,000.

“Our department has not received a raise in about eight years,” Schultz said. By contrast, other law enforcement agencies — the Fish and Wildlife Commission, the Florida Highway Patrol and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement — have received raises.

“We have the highest rate of attrition. We also have the highest rate of African Americans,” she said. “We all need to stop working second jobs.”

Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, the chairman of the committee, noted that all career service employees, including corrections officers, who had a base income of under $40,000 got a one-time increase of $1,400 in 2013 and those with incomes over $40,000, got a bonus of $1,000.

Jones acknowledged there is a need for higher salaries, but it hasn’t reached the point of being a priority for her. She said the cost of living adjustment for officers in more expensive parts of the state was cut in half several years ago as a result of budget cuts. She wants to see that restored but is not asking for the money this year.

“In my officer surveys, the officers told me that having someone to back them up — to get the staffing right — was more important than a raise,” she said.

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, told her that he believes “cameras are critical,” and asked what it would take to make all common areas in prisons recorded by video cameras to both keep a check on inmate and staff behavior.

“If you know you are being filmed you behave differently,” he said.

Jones said her budget does not include additional money for cameras, noting that it would take more than 10,470 cameras — at a cost of $17 million for the cameras and $12 million for the technology.

“No, we don’t have the budget for it,” Jones said, but she added that she is open to the idea and will request it in the 2017-18 budget year.

Negron commended Jones for being “very straightforward.”

“What I found a very good virtue and character trait in Secretary Jones is a willingness to acknowledge deficiencies and a willingness to move forward,” he said. “She keeps her word and the agency has made progress under her leadership.”

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at @meklas@miamiherald.com and at (850) 222-3095. Follow her @MaryEllenKlas