News from Tallahassee for 5/22/15

Inmates’ parents urge outside oversight; House sticks with inside fix posted on 4/8/15

by john kennedy | Palm Beach Post

TALLAHASSEE — Despite emotional testimony from inmates’ parents, a House panel approved a measure (HB 7131) Tuesday that the parents and other critics said falls short of improving Florida’s troubled prison system.

Those testifying Tuesday urged the House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee to include an independent oversight commission like the one already approved by the Florida Senate. The sweeping Senate measure includes the commission and other safeguards meant to help blunt inmate abuse by guards and shoddy health care.

“Please consider this request from a mother who loves her son,” said Gemma Pena of Hialeah, who said her son, Kristopher Rodriguez, is not receiving care for his mental illness while serving a sentence in a Florida prison on an assault conviction.

The House and Senate are advancing dueling prison overhauls following months of media reports alleging wholesale problems within Florida’s corrections system. Among them is a series of stories by The Palm Beach Post about widespread maltreatment and rising inmate deaths in Florida’s privatized prison health care programs.

The House proposal does not call for any outside review of Florida prisons, the nation’s third largest system.

Instead, the House would attempt to improve prison quality by increasing the number of administrative regions included within the Department of Corrections, from three to five.

House sponsor Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, said that change will keep responsibility for the prison system within DOC, and not relinquish it to an outside panel. He said better staff hiring throughout the prison system would disrupt what he acknowledged was a culture of abuse and neglect.

“I think the accountability measures have to be driven by us, written by us and held accountable by us,” Trujillo said. “It shouldn’t be by us convening some board of directors.”

But critics familiar with Florida prisons said the Senate’s approach (CS/SB 7020) makes more sense.

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Florida Senate bill would set rules for police body cameras posted on 4/8/15

by Christine Stapleton | Palm Beach Post

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Senate Criminal Justice Committee unanimously passed a measure (SPB 7080) that would require law-enforcement agencies to establish policies and procedures addressing the proper use, maintenance and storage of body cameras and the data they record.

Agencies would have to establish policies and train officers before allowing them to wear the devices. Currently, Florida law does not require police agencies to have policies governing the use of such technology.

According to the Police Benevolent Association, 13 Florida police departments use the cameras, none of them in Palm Beach County. But West Palm Beach is among the nine other departments that has put a pilot program in place to test their use.

In December, President Obama proposed a three-year, $263 million legislative package to increase the use of body-worn cameras and expand such training for law-enforcement agencies. Part of the federal initiative would provide a 50 percent match to states and local entities that purchase body-worn cameras and requisite storage.

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Bill would create cold case task force posted on 4/8/15

by sean rossman | tallahassee democrat

Cliff Backmann was killed five and a half years ago. No one has been arrested. Now his son, Ryan Backmann, is using the legislative process to help solve the state’s cold case homicides.

Backmann is the force behind Sen. Aaron Bean’s SB 1482, which would establish a Cold Case Task Force within the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

“I hope this legislation gives a lot of people hope because that’s all we have,” said Backmann, the executive director of Project: Cold Case, an organization serving the families of unsolved homicide victims. “At this point there’s no one looking for the guy that killed my dad, there’s no one looking for a lot of murderers out there right now.”

The bill would establish a task force with 19 members, including sheriffs, police chiefs, victim’s families, a crime scene evidence technician and the executive director of FDLE. They would evaluate policies and procedures used by law enforcement agencies to investigate homicides and cold cases and would establish best practices for policies and procedures, according to staff analysis. The task force must also submit a report to the governor and the Legislature.

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New DOC Secretary Jones Grilled During Senate Confirmation Hearing posted on 4/3/15

by Sascha Cordner | WFSU

A panel of Florida lawmakers grilled the head of Florida’s troubled prison system, before unanimously confirming her during a Senate hearing Thursday.

Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones is the fourth person Governor Rick Scott has appointed to lead the prison agency in about as many years.

“It’s an honor and a privilege. I want to thank Governor Rick Scott for his trust in me by appointing me to this position. I look forward to working with each one of you as I go forward bringing real change to the department to ensure safety and security to our inmates and our employees. And, so with that, I’m here to answer questions and would ask for your favorable confirmation.”

Jones—who made those remarks at the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Budget Subcommittee Thursday—has been tasked with taking over an agency plagued by allegations of inmate abuse by prison guards, unnatural inmate deaths, and cover ups.

Both the House and Senate are putting together their prison reform packages—the Senate passed its version Wednesday. It includes an oversight board that can conduct its own investigations into correctional facilities. That’s not included in the House proposal.

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Florida Senate passes bill to address prison concerns posted on 4/2/15

by AP

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — An independent commission would be appointed to investigate prison corruption, safety and prisoner deaths, and the governor would lose sole control of picking a corrections secretary under a bill overwhelmingly passed by the Senate on Wednesday.

The 55 page bill (SB 7020) seeks to address prison system problems that have been highlighted by suspicious deaths and allegations of cover-ups. It passed 36-1, and several Democrats highly praised Republican sponsor Sen. Greg Evers for shepherding the legislation.

"I hope and trust and believe that this reform effort will reap great benefits," said Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner of Tampa. "We've had too many questionable deaths in our prisons, and I really hope this is the beginning of the end of our crisis.

The commission would be able to conduct surprise inspections, confidentially interview any prisoner or employee and could investigate allegations of corruptions or violence against prisoners, either by guards or other inmates. It would also make safety recommendations.

The bill, which will now go to the House, also would require the Corrections secretary be appointed by the governor and three-member Cabinet. Right now, the governor alone appoints the Corrections secretary.

» Read more

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