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.
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.
“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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