Re-Entry program helps criminal offenders get back into society, and avoid being incarcerated again.

TAVARES – Not long ago, the Florida Department of Corrections had a clear message for anyone who had been convicted of a crime, placed on probation, and then violated those rules: no second chances.

“In the past, their view was zero tolerance,” said Tony Deaton, probation director for the Lake County Department of Conservation and Compliance’s Probation Services Division.

Zero tolerance, though, eventually ran into a difficult reality: too many inmates were falling back into the prison system, leaving it overcrowded and increasingly expensive to maintain.  What prison officials discovered, Deaton said, is that a number of offenders wanted to obey the rules of probation and keep their noses clean and stay out of trouble, but they were coping with personal problems that made that a struggle.  What they really needed was a little help. That’s where Deaton and his office comes in.

“Their new philosophy,” Deaton said of the state Department of Corrections, “is re-entry into society.  When people get out of prison, we don’t want to keep filtering them through the system.”

“We haven’t had zero tolerance for years,” added Susan Kowalski, correctional probation officer for the Florida Department of Corrections, Probation and Parole in Lake County.  “Now we want to give them the tools to be successful. It’s about giving back to the community.”

The Lake County Probation Division and the Florida Department of Corrections and  Probation and Parole Offices partnered on Monday to hold a Re-entry Fair  at the Lake County Agricultural Center in Tavares.  It brought together more than thirty agencies ready to assist offenders returning to the community from jail.  The fair was a recognition that offenders face a complex number of challenges as they try to straighten out their lives, and introducing them to social service providers can be beneficial in the long run if it helps the offenders and their families.

Local residents take part in a Re-Entry Fair at the Lake County Agricultural Center in Tavares.

There were agencies at the fair representing a wide variety of programs and services, including assistance getting health care benefits, driver’s licenses, job development and education, housing, and restoration of their civil rights if they’ve been convicted of a felony.

“It’s a one stop shop where all the services are here,” Kowalski said.   “We try to get all the services at once.”

Deaton noted that the Lake County Corrections Department in Tavares houses thousands of offenders each year.

“We’ve got 13,000 people who get booked at our local jail,” he said, adding that the way to keep them from returning to jail is to give them to tools to become successful on the outside.

“What we find is certainly there’s a tremendous need for services in our county,” he said.  “And what we’re finding is when people are coming through the system and getting out of jail, they have a lot of issues to deal with.”

For some, the problem is substance abuse, and for others, mental health issues.  Other inmates lack an education or job skills.  They find it a struggle to readjust to life outside of jail.

“Sometimes they don’t even have an I.D.,” Deaton said.

Community corrections agencies alone can’t respond to the complex needs of people returning from jail and prison, Deaton said, so the offender re-entry program is designed to help them become productive, tax-paying citizens.

A bus brought to the Re-Entry Fair by the state agency Workforce Central Florida was staffed by people ready to help offenders find employment.

“We’ve got a tremendous representation of community resources here,” Deaton said.  “We wanted to bring the service providers together, and offenders can walk right in here and get assistance with a job, or education, or housing.  They families can come in here, too. This is open to the public.”

Assisting offenders, he said, save taxpayer dollars by lowering the cost of incarceration if it helps keep an inmate from re-offending.

“When offenders are successful, we’re successful,” Deaton said.  “We know that has an impact on crime reduction.  We can’t just rely on incarceration.”

One of the programs the fair’s hosts were promoting was the Federal Bonding Program. To help ex-prisoners who have a tough time finding a job after being in prison, the U.S. Department of Labor created the Federal Bonding Program to insure employees for up to a year.  FBP guarantees the trustworthiness of the worker and, in turns, provides incentives for businesses to hire ex-prisoners.

The fair also provided a list of local employers known to hire ex-offenders, and information on the state agency Workforce Central Florida, which helps job seekers – including ex-prisoners – put together a resume and find a job.

“We’re really pushing the Federal Bonding Program,” said Kowalski.  “When they get released from prison or come up for work release, the federal government can bond them, and it’s up to the offender to sell the program to an employer, to say ‘If you hire me, I will be bonded for six months to a year.’ This is for all the offenders in the Department of Corrections.”

To learn more about the Lake County Department of Conservation & Compliance’s Probation Services Division and future Re-Entry Fairs, call 352-742-6565.

To learn about the Federal Bonding Program, call 800-233-2258.

To contact Workforce Central Florida, call 407-531-1227 (East Orange County), 407-705-1555 (Osceola County) or 352-360-6280 (Lake or Sumter counties).

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Ax the Tax calls for abolishing highway tolls in Orange County.

Ax the Tax is calling on the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority to eliminate tolls altogether.

ORLANDO – With the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority collecting a record amount in tolls last year, the anti-tax group Ax the Tax is once again calling on the authority to abandon tolls altogether, saying they discourage motorists from getting on toll roads and are no longer needed.

“We were there two years ago at the public hearings that were held,” said Doug Guetzloe, who founded Ax the Tax. “They were public non-hearings — they were not hearing anything. We said it was not necessary, there was plenty of money to complete their projects, and they should just disband the tolls.” Those tolls are actually slated to go up against in 2012 to help finance the Wekiva Parkway.

The Expressway Authority took in $251 million in 2010, a 22 percent increase from 2009. The authority was created by the Florida Legislature in 1963 to focus on building a limited access roadway from Orlando to Brevard County. The authority’s second project was construction of State Road 408, also known as the East-West Expressway, a 13.3 mile road built for $89 million, and completed in December 1973.

The expansion of this roadway, which started in July 2003, was designed to extend 16 miles from Clarke Road to State Road 417 – the Central Florida GreeneWay.  State Road 417 is a toll road forming an eastern beltway around Orlando.

Citing a need to finance road improvements and expansions, in 2009 the Expressway Authority voted unanimously to raise tolls by 25 cents. The chairman, Rich Crotty, the former Orange County mayor, defended the toll hikes by noting that the authority was negotiating long-term bond deals and the increased revenues brought in from the toll hike would be needed.

But Guetzloe said the toll hikes angered commuters and forced them off the toll roads, and that the Expressway Authority is simply unresponsive to what the public wants or needs.

“It’s a self-perpetuating bureaucracy,” Guetzloe said.  “The bonded indebtedness is one of the arguments they keep throwing at us, but the last time we checked, they had $1.4 billion worth of bonds.”

The Expressway Authority could eliminate that debt, he said, by having county government take over payment of the bonds, and not rely on tolls to finance them.

“They should transfer the cost of paying the bonds off to the Orange County government,” Guetzloe said.  “Each county government could agree to absorb the cost of the bonds.”

Last year, Florida lawmakers passed a bill allowing for the creation of the Osceola County Expressway Authority.  That separates Osecola County from the authority of the Orlando/Orange County Expressway Authority. It also lets Osceola officials set guidelines for the highways that go through their county and gives Osceola officials the ability to raise tolls to pay for road improvement projects.

Guetzloe said Orange County alone had the money to finance the bonds for the next two decades.

“You take $1.4 billion and divide that into separate payments, and Orange County could come up with $70 million a year, paid over 20 years,” Guetzloe said.  “The Orange County budget is $5 billion. If you’re talking about $70 million, that’s a drop in the bucket.  The county currently has $632 million in reserves – what they call a rainy day fund.  That is money that is not budgeted and is unspent.”

Using that money to pay off the bonds, Guetzloe said, would enable the Expressway Authority to eliminate the tolls.

“You could take the tolls off the toll roads today and have a highway,” Guetzloe said.  “It is the finest road system we have.  If you took the tolls off, you would reduce traffic congestion in Central Florida.  If you take the tolls off, people would use them again.  People can’t really pay these tolls, especially in these times.  We say open it up to the great unwashed masses.”

But doing so, he said, “would abolish the Expressway Authority and that would get rid of 200 to 300 high paying jobs.”

Guetzloe said the future of those tolls would now likely depend on Orange County’s new mayor, Teresa Jacobs, who takes over as chairman of the authority.

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Sen. Nelson wants to crack down on inmate tax scams.

ORLANDO – Around this time of year, businesses start sending out W2 forms to their employees, listing how much they earned last year, so they can start the arduous task of figuring out how much they owe the federal government in taxes.  If they’re lucky, they may have overpaid and are expecting a refund.

Or they could be among the millions of Americans whose tax dollars go to support something else entirely: inmates in prison who file false tax forms to get refunds for work they didn’t do, and couldn’t have done behind they were behind bars.

Inmates in Florida prisons and county jails don't have access to computers or the Internet, so it's harder for them to file bous tax claims.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, has joined three of his colleagues on an effort to coinvince the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the Internal Revenue Service to work together to enforce a 2008 law that stops this practice in state and federal prisons across the nation.

Nelson has been working on this effort since 2005, when he first asked Congress to investigate how widespread the problem of inmate tax scams is and to identify ways to safeguard the prison system so it will be difficult, if not impossible, for prisoners to cheat the government — and taxpayers.

As Nelson noted in a 2005 press release from his office, “Convicts should go to prison to pay their debts to society, not to rip off American taxpayers.”

Now the Florida senator has teamed up with Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y, Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, to put more teeth in that earlier effort. The scam is easy: Nelson’s office said prisoners typically use their own names or the names of their friends to file bogus tax claims in order to get refund checks.

In 2005, Nelson’s office reported that two inmates serving long sentences in Florida prisons for murder got some help from a few outsiders, and filed phony tax returns that netted them refunds of about $5,000 from the IRS for wages they never earned. 

The Florida senator cited other examples: an inmate at Missouri Eastern Correctional Center filed a fake tax return for himself and 65 other inmates while serving time in 2002. Prosecutors later estimated that the scheme cost taxpayers more than $73,000.

A year later, the senator’s office noted, two inmates at the Carson City Correctional Facility in Michigan were sentenced to an additional 27 months in prison after authorities found out they had planned to file false tax returns on behalf of fellow prisoners.  The refunds they were expecting totaled more than $46,000. 

The senator said access to the Internet at correctional facilities across the country could be making it easier for inmates to file these phony returns.

Inmates don’t have similar online access in Florida’s state prisons or county jails, making it harder for inmates to scam the government. 

“State prison inmates do not have access to the Internet,” said Gretl Pressinger, public information officer for the Florida Department of Corrections.  “We have computers they can do typing on, and some computer classes, but they have no capability to go online.”

 As of June 2009, Florida had 146 prison facilities, including 62 major institutions, 45 work/forestry camps, one treatment center, 33 work release centers and five road prisons.  It costs the state $18,980 a year, or $52 a day, to feed, clothe, house and provide medical services for an inmate at a state facility, and $15,443 at a prison for adult males, the majority of people incarcerated in the Florida prison system.  Florida’s recidivism rate is 33 percent, meaning one of every three inmates released from a state prison returns there within three years.

According to the Federal Bureau of Prison’s Inmate Handbook, inmates are only allowed to spend up to $290 a month for purchases on their commissary account at the prison canteen. Once a month, each inmate account is “validated,” meaning that’s the start of their spending period.  Deposits to commissary accounts are made from outside sources, including family, friends and associates.

Prison Unit Managers can also approve withdrawals for the payment of fines, restitution for losses, and other financial obligations that include court or attorney fees and the purchase of legal books.

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