By RYAN DAILEY
News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — With Florida facing a “perfect storm” of declining facilities and other woes in the state prison system, lawmakers this week were briefed on a report that pointed to a need to spend at least $2.2 billion on repairs, retrofits and staffing.
The report was authored by the consulting firm KPMG, which was paid $2 million by lawmakers to develop a “master plan” designed to improve the corrections system over a 20-year period. Leaking roofs, corroded doors, broken windows and crumbling stucco were among the facility problems identified in the report.
Florida is facing “a bit of a perfect storm,” Jeff Goodale, a subcontractor who worked on the report, told the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee on Wednesday.
“Inevitably, at a certain point, these systems do get stressed to a point of crisis,” Goodale, who works for HOK Architects, said.
A third of Florida’s correctional facilities were in poor or critical condition, the report said. Compounding the problems with physical facilities are a projected increase in the state’s prison population and ongoing staffing woes such as turnover and vacancies. The report outlined a turnover rate in the Department of Corrections of more than 26 percent during the fiscal year that ended in July, and said staff vacancy rates at some prisons are above 20 percent.
Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Chairwoman Jennifer Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican, indicated that the issues such as the ones raised in the reports have been plaguing the system for some time.
“We have asked for too long for DOC (Department of Corrections) to do too much with too little,” said Bradley, whose North Florida district includes several prisons.
Bradley did, however, point to salary increases provided by the Legislature for correctional officers over the last few years as having helped address some staffing problems.
“But aging infrastructure, making sure we have enough beds to meet increasing projections remain big challenges. This roadmap is welcome by those in the trenches across this system,” she added.
The master plan offered lawmakers three options to stabilize the system, which houses about 80,000 inmates and is projected to add another 43,000 prisoners over the next 20 years, according to KPMG.
The most expensive option, carrying a price tag of $11.9 billion, would involve building three 4,800-bed prisons and two hospitals over the next two decades. A second option, at a cool $9 billion, would make the changes in the most-expensive option, except that it would lead to building two prisons instead of three.
The $2.2 billion proposal recommended building a 4,800-bed prison and two new hospitals — with a total of 900 beds — and reopening and adding beds at existing prison sites.
In a blow to one of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ priorities from the 2023 legislative session, U.S. Supreme Court justices this week denied a request by the governor’s administration that would have allowed enforcement of a state law aimed at preventing children from attending drag shows.
The law, dubbed by sponsors as the “Protection of Children Act,” would prevent venues from admitting children to adult live performances. It was approved by lawmakers and the governor after the DeSantis administration cracked down on venues in South Florida and Central Florida where children attended drag shows.
The Supreme Court’s move came after U.S. District Judge Gregory Presnell this summer issued a statewide preliminary injunction against the law, finding that it violated First Amendment rights. The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by the Orlando restaurant and bar Hamburger Mary’s.
The DeSantis administration appealed Presnell’s ruling to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and also sought a partial stay that would have allowed the state to enforce the law against all venues in Florida — except Hamburger Mary’s — while the legal battle continues to play out.
But the appeals court subsequently rejected the administration’s request for a partial stay, and lawyers representing Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation Secretary Melanie Griffin took the case to the Supreme Court.
Griffin is a named defendant in the case.
With the Supreme Court’s denial of DeSantis’ most recent request, the law remains effectively blocked from enforcement.
The decision did not give a full breakdown of the justices’ positions, but it said Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch would have granted the request for a stay. The document did include a brief explanation from conservative Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett about their position on denying the stay.
Kavanaugh wrote, in part, that the case is an “imperfect vehicle for considering the general question of whether a district court may enjoin a government from enforcing a law against non-parties to the litigation.”
A slate of bills aimed at reducing regulations on public schools began moving forward Wednesday, as a key Florida Senate panel signed off on changes such as eliminating testing requirements for earning high-school diplomas.
The Senate Education Pre-K-12 Committee unanimously approved the bills (SPB 7000, SPB 7002 and SPB 7004), which are filed for the 2024 legislative session.
The bill that received the most public comment during the meeting was SPB 7004, which deals with issues such as assessments, accountability and school choice.
The measure, in part, would nix requirements that high-school students pass the state’s standardized English-language arts exam in 10th grade and pass the Algebra I end-of-course assessment to receive high-school diplomas. Under the current system, students also can satisfy the requirements by earning comparative scores on certain other standardized tests.
Several school superintendents, including Baker County Superintendent Sherrie Raulerson, voiced support for parts of the bills, such as the testing requirement changes.
“There are thousands of amazing students with good grades who are being impacted negatively because of the requirements that were passed for certain tests, despite their ability to demonstrate their academic ability over 13, 14 years of being in our classrooms,” Raulerson told the Senate panel.\
But the Foundation for Florida’s Future, a group chaired by former Gov. Jeb Bush that has long been influential on education issues, raised concerns about some of the proposed changes.
“The foundation is committed to the goal of removing unnecessary, duplicative and outdated regulations on Florida’s public schools, but we do not want to see Florida take a step backward,” Nathan Hoffman, senior legislative director for the organization, said in a prepared statement.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Florida needs to spend at least $2.2 billion on repairs, retrofits and staffing to address “‘immediate” needs in the state prison system, according to a new report.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “The hope is that there’s the political will in this building to allocate the resources that we need to make sure that we have a prison system that’s sustainable.” Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee Jennifer Bradley, R-Fleming Island