New DOC Head Less Interested in Lock Up, Throw Away Key

By: Michael Peltier, The News Service of Florida
By: Michael Peltier, The News Service of Florida

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, February 21, 2011 --

More drug treatment, juvenile intervention and giving judges more flexibility in sentencing are the ways to improve Florida’s correctional system, the state’s newest prisons chief said Monday.

With only 96 hours under his belt, DOC Secretary Ed Buss spoke to reporters for the first time, answering questions on a range of issues he’ll likely face as he leads one of the nation’s largest prison systems during tough budget times.

Buss, 45, was lauded by his former boss, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, as a rising star in a new generation of prison officials when Scott tapped him to replace Walter McNeil.

With 29,000 inmates and a $650 million budget, Indiana’s prison system is much smaller than Florida’s, a sprawling network of facilities and programs overseeing more than 102,000 prisoners at a cost of $2.4 billion.

Scott has called for streamlining the agency and cutting close to 1,700 jobs. Buss, who cut 1,000 jobs while head of Indiana’s system, said Monday he’ll target middle and upper management first before cutting into front line workers.

“We will streamline from the top first,” said Buss, adding that he’s cut a third of his executive staff. “We’ve already done that.”

Buss said he intends to push for more innovative programs and early intervention to reduce the adult prison population. A major focus will be on juvenile justice and replacing “tough love” with job training and substance abuse programs.

“The boot camp model is no longer in vogue,” Buss said. “As it turns out, it hasn’t got us the outcomes we wanted in terms of reducing recidivism. These kids today have substance abuse issues like we never seen before. They need to get back in school and get an education.”

That approach is a sea change from the last couple of decades when getting tough on criminals was the demand from a fed-up populace. A series of minimum mandatory sentencing laws has taken effect over that time, including required minimum sentences for crimes using guns, such as 10-20-Life and a number of minimum mandatories for drug crimes, part of the so-called “war on drugs.”

Buss favors giving judges more discretion in handling cases.

”Florida is using incarceration as its number one form of justice,” “Buss said. “If that is the policy decision, you have to realize you are going to have to pay for it because incarceration costs the most compared to other alternatives.”

In addition, drug rehab, vocational and educational programs have been cut as lawmakers have dealt with increasingly tight budgets.

Buss said he said he thinks he can convince legislators and the governor that a little spent up front on those types of programs pays dividends in the end.

“I’m going to do my best,” Buss said. “This governor likes to measure. I’m going to show the measurements to prove to him that where we’re going is the best practice on where we should be going.”

Scott has talked about closing two prisons and privatizing others. Given the tight budget, Buss is onboard, saying Florida must look at less expensive and more successful programs, especially for non-violent offenders.

Buss’ remarks came Monday as Scott visited the Department of Corrections, one of a series of stops at the agencies he now oversees.

Despite the fact that he is proposing substantial job cuts at the agency, the governor was received cordially. Employees did raise concerns about his plans to require state workers to contribute more to their retirements, and possible cuts to health benefits at a time when they haven’t received a pay raise in several years.


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