Probation Officers Await Fate Budget May Slash 400-500 State Jobs

By Pfankuch, Thomas B. | The Florida Times Union, November 3, 2001 | Go to article overview

Probation Officers Await Fate Budget May Slash 400-500 State Jobs


Pfankuch, Thomas B., The Florida Times Union


Byline: Thomas B. Pfankuch, Times-Union staff writer

TALLAHASSEE -- Just how many criminals can one probation officer keep on the straight and narrow?

About 70, perhaps? Right now, each Florida probation officer is responsible on average for about that many small-time offenders in a system already stressed by several years of position cuts and and steady increases in the number of people on probation.

But how about 130 criminals? Or 140? No way, probation officers and union officials say.

At that ratio, they say, small-time crooks can run the streets unchecked and evolve into big-time convicts. Families that relied on advice and counseling from probation officers will have to deal with problems on their own.

But that new ratio is likely if Gov. Jeb Bush signs a budget proposal passed by lawmakers this week that includes drastic cuts in the state probation officer program. A proposed cut of $18.5 million from the community corrections program in the Department of Corrections could lead to the estimated elimination of 400 to 500 of the state's 2,300 front-line probation officers who monitor the activities of nearly 150,000 people on probation.

"Someone will end up hurt or even murdered because all these people will be out there virtually unsupervised," said David Murrell, executive director of the Police Benevolent Association that represents probation officers. "The remaining probation officers just can't physically keep tabs on all those people."

Beyond the immediate threat to public safety caused by the cuts, union officials say the cuts could cause a long-term, potentially far more expensive problem in the state criminal justice system.

Gil Fortner, a 22-year Panhandle probation officer who is president of the Police Benevolent Association, said a thinly stretched probation system could cause judges in Florida to lose faith in the ability of the probation system to monitor small-time criminals. In that scenario, Fortner said, judges could begin sending more borderline criminals to prison to make sure the public is safe.

That, he said, could cost the state a bundle because while it costs the state $2.50 a day to monitor a probationer, it costs $35 a day to house a prison inmate.

"If the judges lose confidence in us, they'll send more people to prison," Fortner said.

Most of the people supervised by probation officers have been sentenced for crimes a judge feels do not warrant a prison sentence. The proposed budget cuts would not affect probation officers who oversee the state's most serious drug dealers, sex offenders and former prison inmates.

The cuts to the probation program are part of a series of criminal justice cuts made during the Legislature's attempt to balance the state's budget by cutting $800 million in a nine-day special session that ended this week. Juvenile justice programs and the probation program were the hardest hit.

The Department of Corrections as a whole has seen drastic cuts in the past three years, including $180 million and 4,000 jobs shaved already, said Sterling Ivey, spokesman for the prison system.

The probation system also lost 165 probation officers in July as part of this year's state budget that had its own set of criminal justice cuts. …

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