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Judge Rejects Plan To Privatize Florida Prisons

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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – A Leon County circuit judge has blocked a plan to privatize 29 Florida prison facilities, claiming the way the law authorized the change violated the Florida constitution. The state had planned to seek bids on the program Friday, but that was immediately canceled by the ruling.

Judge Jackie Fulford’s six-page order said the constitution required lawmakers to change state law or use an already-existing department review process before privatizing the prisons. Instead, legislative leaders put the privatization plan in budget fine print, known as proviso language.

“Based on the record before it, this court concludes that if it is the will of the Legislature to itself initiate privatization of Florida prisons, as opposed to DOC (initiating it), the Legislature must do so by general law, rather than ‘using the hidden recesses of the General Appropriations Act,’ ” Fulford wrote, partially quoting a decades-old Supreme Court ruling.

The privatization plan was strongly opposed by Florida police unions, and Fulford’s order was a victory for them.  The Florida Police Benevolent Association, which along with three correctional officers, challenged the plan this summer.

“You’ve got 4,000 officers today (who) just breathed a sigh of relief,” PBA Executive Director Matt Puckett said shortly after Fulford released the opinion Friday morning.

An appeal is widely expected, though Department of Corrections spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said officials were studying the ruling and “determining our options.” The department is the defendant in the lawsuit, though the Legislature approved the privatization plan.

Puckett said the PBA had heard rumblings earlier about privatization but didn’t expect the plan to be so far-reaching. He described Fulford’s ruling as a “pretty strong condemnation on how they did this.”

Similarly, St. Petersburg Rep. Darryl Rouson, the ranking Democrat on the House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee, said a “full and fair debate is necessary” on privatization issues.

“Today’s ruling reaffirms that it is entirely inappropriate for legislative leaders to avoid a thorough debate about a controversial issue like prison privatization by tucking it in the fine print of the state budget,” Rouson said in a prepared statement.

The language in the bill offered a roadmap to privatize prisons, work camps and other types of correctional facilities in 18 counties across the southern part of the state.

Jonathan Glogau, chief of complex litigation in the Attorney General’s Office, argued during a hearing Thursday that the proviso language did not ensure that privatization would occur.

The language called for the Department of Corrections to solicit proposals from private companies and then submit a plan to the Legislative Budget Commission by Dec. 1. If approved by the commission, the proviso said the department “may” award a contract to a private company.

But Fulford did not appear to buy that argument, writing that the proviso language “mandates that DOC privatize numerous facilities in a single procurement.”

Also, she said lawmakers did not follow a privatization process that already is in state law. That process gives the Department of Corrections a major role in doing analyses and deciding whether to move forward with privatization.

“(The) court reiterates that DOC could have privatized the prisons under existing law, so long as DOC acted consistent with existing law, or the Legislature could have passed a new law permitting privatization,” she wrote. “This court merely reaches the simple conclusion that the Legislature may not change existing substantive law by a proviso in an appropriations act.”

The News Service of Florida Contributed to this report.

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