Deputy's death raises questions about Fla.'s depleted prison resources

Joseph Ables had what the Florida DOC described as "a clean probation record"

By Mary Ellen Klas
Miami Herald

TALLAHASSSEE, Fla. — The death of Highlands County sheriff's deputy William Gentry, who police say was shot by a 69-year-old felon who was known to be violent, raised new questions about Florida's depleted supervision and prison resources this week.

Joseph Ables had been on probation since 2016 for aggravated battery, was classified as a "Violent Felony Offender of Special Concern," and had what the Florida Department of Corrections described as "a clean probation record." But when Gentry arrived at Ables' Lake Placid home on Sunday to investigate complaints that the 69-year-old had shot a cat, the officer was shot in the head.

Deputy William Gentry died the next day after being shot. (Photo/Highland County Sheriff's Office)
Deputy William Gentry died the next day after being shot. (Photo/Highland County Sheriff's Office)

Gentry, 40, died the next day, but questions remain as to how Ables got a gun. Police said he had a history of violence toward police, so why wasn't he being more carefully watched by probation officers? Could higher scrutiny have made a difference? And did the department's decision to scale back visits because of staff shortages and budget cuts play a role?

"Offender Ables was appropriately supervised based on the court’s orders for nearly two years without any behavior or violations that warranted a change in his supervision status," said Michelle Glady, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections. "Any assertions that the Department did not appropriately supervise this offender are inaccurate."

It is not clear whether probation officers could have caught any warning signs that Ables could turn violent against Gentry, but the agency, which has been chronically underfunded by Gov. Rick Scott and state legislators for years, has eliminated hundreds of probation officers' jobs in the last decade. The officers point to a policy at the agency that allows some offenders to mail in their own probation reports, significantly reducing home and office visits by probation officers.

"For the last few years the agency due to one scheme or another has done several things in an effort to reduce officer to offender visits due to the decrease of probation officers,'' said Christina Bullins, former probations supervisor at the Department of Corrections. "A quality visit at home not only may reveal a violation of probation but could reveal signs of child abuse or neglect, human trafficking or any number of important behaviors the state says is important to detect. "

On Friday, Corrections Secretary Julie Jones submitted a budget request to the governor and House and Senate leaders, seeking approval to make another $29.6 million in cuts. The money will come from 33 contractors who provide mental health and substance abuse treatment and transition services to inmates at the end of their sentences.

The agency doesn’t have enough cash to pay for renewing its prison healthcare contract with Centurion of Florida LLC. The contract expires June 30, and because of an increase in the standard of care the state is required to provide inmates, the cost of the contract is also rising.

If Scott and the Florida House approve the cuts, as expected, an estimated 600 people working for companies that provide treatment programs will be laid off, said Mark Fontaine, director of the Florida Behavioral Health Association. In addition, an estimated 1,000 inmates will be put back on the streets without training and transition programming.

The state is forcing the contractors to accept 40 percent cuts but, Fontaine said, "it's going to be hard for many providers to take a 40 percent cut.'' They won't be able to spread the expenses to their remaining programs, he said, and "it's going to cripple many of them, if not all."

He also questions why an agency with a $2.3 billion budget has no choice but to cut contracted services. "Why all of a sudden did this happen?"

The Legislature passed and the governor signed a state budget knowing it was not enough to cover the healthcare contract and forcing the Department of Corrections to return this month with a plan to make deep cuts to programs aimed at preparing inmates to return to the community.

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Legislature left $28 million hole in prison budget. Now essential programs are cut.

The Florida Senate opposes the cuts and has attempted to get the House and the governor to agree to revising the contracts to avoid the program cuts until lawmakers meet again in November when they can tap state reserve funds to fill the hole. Until then, two of the three — the House speaker, Senate president and governor — can approve the cuts to modify the budget without a full legislative vote.

When the cuts take effect on June 30, hundreds of inmates at the ends of their sentences who now receive treatment for substance abuse, or are taking classes in GED and vocational skills, will be returned to prison for months before they are let back on the streets. About 39 prison chaplains and prison librarians, who work for the state, not contractors, also will have their jobs reduced from 40 to 20 hours a week.

"None of this makes sense,'' said Tom Griffin, CEO of Transition House in Kissimmee, who faces laying off 16 of his 30-member staff as 150 inmates are moved from a behavioral healthcare program back to prison. "The folks that were set up to succeed are going to be put back in prison where there is absolutely no programming."

He predicted that the money saved will cost taxpayers in the long run. Felons who leave prison without going through transition training and treatment commit another crime at a 38 percent rate, Griffin said. Felons who leave his program return to prison at a 5 percent rate, he said.

"What's amazing to me is we are cutting substance abuse treatment programs for folks that have been incarcerated and we are in the world's greatest opioid epidemic,'' he said. "There is a direct correlation between substance abuse and criminal behavior. The logic escapes me."

Sen. Jeff Brandes, the St. Petersburg Republican who heads the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice, agrees the cuts are shortsighted but can't persuade the governor and House to block them.

"The question is, does anybody care about prisoners?" he asked Friday. "We'll be putting 1,000 people back into prison who have been out of prison in halfway houses and transition programs. I would feel better if the prisons were staffed and well maintained but they are 2,000 prison guards short."

But Florida's prison system has long been a fiscal stepchild for legislators and the governor, drawing years of legal challenges. As the state's employment rolls improve, the agency has struggled to fill openings for corrections officers, particularly in the rural areas.

Scott, now a U.S. Senate candidate, has avoided saying much about the budget cuts other than to highlight the fact that after years of funding cuts he recommended increasing the Corrections budget by $169 million this year. That increase also came after the state settled three lawsuits that forced the agency to spend more on mental health, Hepatitis C treatment and accommodations for disabled inmates.

Scott spokesman McKinley Lewis noted, however, that had the Legislature funded the governor's budget request, it would have avoided the cuts and allowed for the funding of the health services.

"Secretary Jones is working tirelessly to mitigate the impacts of these cuts while ensuring that the department can continue in its constitutional responsibility to provide healthcare to inmates, " he said.

But Lewis did not want to say why the governor was unwilling to shift money from a reserve fund to offset the cuts.

Rep. Jose Oliva, the incoming House speaker and Republican from Miami Lakes, said Friday that legislators would take the issue up at an organizational session in November, but he would not respond to why they were waiting until then.

Will future discussions include adding money to the prison budget to fund transition and treatment programs that will be cut by $29.6 million with this budget amendment?

"Future discussions will include all considerations,'' Oliva replied.

©2018 Miami Herald

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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