Florida House, Senate Start Work On Criminal Justice Budget Proposals

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About $5 million separates the Florida House and Senate’s criminal justice budget. But, while there are some differences, there are areas where both chambers agree.

The Senate’s budget proposal is just over $4.6 billion. Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) chairs the Senate Budget committee that looks at criminal justice issues.

He says the budget reflects a change in how the Senate approaches future criminal justice reforms.

“We will shift our focus toward a smart-on-crime model,” said Brandes. “This model reflects a paradigm shift that puts a greater emphasis on treatment on individuals in the criminal justice system. This budget tackles some critical issues, affecting the health and safety of Florida’s inmates.”

For example, Brandes says he’s looking into investing funds to reduce the number of low risk offenders coming into the prison system. He’s also investing funds into the court system.

“In the courts, we’re investing significant funds in problem solving courts to divert offenders from prison,” he added. “We recommend $4 million from recurring General Revenue to expand the use of problem solving courts to reduce the flow of inmates into the prison system and to address their treatment needs in the community. These offenders will receive expanded drug treatment courts, mental health courts, and other specialty dockets around the state, particularly in the rural areas—where no such diversionary options are available.”

Pay raises for probation officers and juvenile justice staff are also on the table. So are pay increases for State Attorneys and public defenders.

And, a bulk of the budget also focuses on taking care of lawsuits facing the Florida Department of Corrections.

“We spend $62.8 million to address health care issues in the Department of Corrections, including Hepatitis C,” he continued. “We spend $23 million to enhance mental health treatment in our prison facilities.”

That’s similar to what’s included in the House’s criminal justice budget proposal of close to $5.2 billion. Rep. Bill Hager (R-Delray Beach) leads that budget effort in the House.

“This budget proposal is focused—as it ought rightfully be given the needs—on the Department of Corrections,” he said. “In addition, to reach our targets, we’ve eliminated any number of vacant positions that have been vacant for longer than 180 days. We’ve eliminated some projects from the base budget. We’ve maximized as in last year the utilization of trust funds where appropriate.”

Like the Senate, Hager says it also includes different agency priorities as well as member projects.

And, with the biggest chunk of the budget, Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones says she’s grateful to the committee.

“I really appreciate the work this committee did because I know we kind of suck the air out of the room sometimes, and I appreciate the work of staff and everything you did, and your ability to meet the needs of our litigation,” she said. “And, give us a good budget to work with to keep our inmates and our officers safe, and I look forward to working with you through the rest of the process to the end, but really appreciate everything the committee and staff did.”

Meanwhile, these are still preliminary figures, and the House and Senate are still weeks away from coming together on the actual criminal justice budget.

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