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Probation bill seeks radical change

The bill, going through the Florida House, would give all offenders probation when they are released from prison.

By LUCY MORGAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 18, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- A bill speeding through the House would establish a form of probation for all offenders as they are released from prison and would virtually abolish the Florida Parole Commission.

The bill wasn't even filed until April 7, but sailed out of a House committee Monday on a 5-2 vote over the objections of Democrats who say a bill that would make such radical changes in the criminal justice system needs more study.

The proposal also has the support of Gov. Jeb Bush, who included some of its provisions in his proposed budget earlier this year.

Committee members narrowly voted down an amendment that would have delayed the effective date of the changes until 2002 for a formal study of costs and effect on the criminal justice system.

The bill would require persons sentenced for crimes committed after July 1 to be released under mandatory probation supervision when they complete their prison sentence. The probationary time would be imposed at the time of sentencing and supervised by officers working for the Department of Corrections.

The term of probation would keep inmates from being turned out on the streets without some accountability, proponents of the bill say. It would be up to sentencing judges to hear accusations of violations of probation and consider sending the inmate back to prison.

Under the current system, only a small percentage of inmates released from prison are subject to special supervision. Of 23,000 inmates released in 1998-99, 4,500 were subject to post-prison supervision. Most of these conditions were imposed by sentencing judges.

The Parole Commission still has authority over about 5,500 inmates who remain eligible for parole under the state's old parole system, which was abolished in 1983. About 2,400 of those are free on conditional release supervised by the commission. The commission also does clemency investigations.

The bill would transform the Parole Commission into the Parole Board and all of its administrative functions would be transferred to Corrections. The transfer would reduce the staff of the commission from 184 persons to about 59. The three commission members, appointed by the governor, would remain as board members until their terms expire.

Rep. Fred Brummer, R-Apopka, the primary sponsor of the bill, said it would help ensure public safety and keep offenders subject to official oversight for 100 percent of their sentences. Brummer said he was late filing the bill because he was working out details with Brad Thomas, an aide to the governor.

Bush included the proposal in his budget earlier this year, but it was rejected by budget writers in both houses.

Despite earlier rejections, the proposal is clearly on a fast track in the House, but no senator has filed a companion bill.

Last week the bill became the catalyst for the resignation of longtime House staffer Jimmy Helms after an aide to House Speaker John Thrasher ordered the bill immediately placed on a committee agenda. When Helms resisted, he lost his parking place in the Capitol and decided to resign.

Cosponsors of the house bill include Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo, who is slated to become speaker in November if Republicans retain a majority.

On Monday, as the bill sped through the House Governmental Operations Committee, Democrats, the state's public defenders and Parole Commission Chairman Jimmie Henry urged lawmakers to slow down. All supported a study to determine the cost of making such radical changes.

Public Defender Richard Parker of Gainesville said he fears the bill would require the state to supervise about 18,500 more inmates a year and increase the cost of defending those who don't have the money to hire a lawyer.

Henry questioned whether it poses a conflict of interest for Corrections, the agency that houses inmates, to help decide conditions of release.

"There is no immediate, pressing need for this," Henry added.

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