tampabay.com

Juvenile chief to head prisons

Crist cites a personal affinity in picking the former police chief.

By STEVE BOUSQUET, Tallahassee bureau chief
Published January 16, 2008


TALLAHASSEE - Walt McNeil traded one tough state job for another Tuesday as Gov. Charlie Crist tapped Florida's juvenile justice chief to run the exponentially larger prison system.

McNeil takes over for Jim McDonough, a retired Army colonel who took over the agency two years ago in the midst of a major scandal.

McNeil, a former Tallahassee police chief, is one of the few high-level Democrats who works for the Republican governor.

"I wanted to pick somebody that I knew, that I had confidence in," Crist said at a morning news conference. "I just had a personal relationship and an affinity for this man."

The decision was Crist's, not McNeil's, and happened with breakneck speed after McDonough's resignation plans leaked out last week.

"Surprised but pleased" was how McNeil described his feelings to a police union official. He related a conversation in which Crist told him that "I need you in corrections."

"If the governor thinks my talents are better served in corrections, who am I to second-guess that?" McNeil said.

Crist said on Thursday that he would have an "exciting announcement" to make Tuesday about McDonough's successor. On Friday, McNeil said nobody had asked him to take the job.

McNeil's salary has not been set. McDonough was paid $125,750.

The soft-spoken McNeil, 51, is a Methodist who believes in faith-based programs and who once considered a career as a clergyman. He takes over at a turbulent time.

The inmate population is growing much faster than the state can build beds, a situation McDonough calls "danger close" because of a court order that bars inmate releases due to overcrowding.

Gang violence is increasing, efforts to curb recidivism through literacy and drug treatment have been stymied by a budget crunch, and a legal challenge to the method of lethal injection casts doubt on the future of capital punishment in Florida.

McNeil is the first African-American corrections chief since Harry Singletary, who worked for Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles in the 1990s.

About half of the 95,000 inmates in the prison system are black, even though blacks make up about 14 percent of the state's population. Asked about that, McNeil, a career law enforcement officer, said: "Unfortunately, a disproportionate number of African-Americans are being arrested in our state and, for that matter, around the country."

A native of Laurel, Miss., McNeil moved to Chicago at age 10 and back to Mississippi after his parents separated. McNeil and his wife, Gloria, have a 16-year-old daughter. McNeil has an older son and daughter from a previous marriage.

He holds an associate degree in law enforcement from Jones Junior College in Mississippi and a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from the University of Southern Mississippi.

His master's degree from St. John's University, a correspondence school in rural Louisiana, came under scrutiny last year because it came from an unaccredited school. However, neither of his state jobs has required a master's degree.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.