Teamsters, Dept. of Corrections battle about probation visits
By Jim Saunders, The News Service of Florida
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, June 6, 2012......A state judge heard arguments Wednesday about whether the Florida Department of Corrections acted improperly this year when it severely restricted probation officers from going to probationers' homes to check on them.
The department placed travel restrictions on probation officers in March as a cost-cutting move. But the Teamsters union, which represents officers, contends that the department needed to go through a formal rule-making process before approving the change --- and that the restrictions endanger public safety.
"I think we are putting the community at risk,'' Miami probation officer Kimberly Schultz testified during a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Elizabeth McArthur.
But department officials said the change has not compromised safety. If officers suspect wrongdoing, they can seek permission from supervisors to visit probationers' homes and also have other ways to conduct monitoring, such as drug tests, the officials said.
"Nothing has been brought to my attention that we have jeopardized public safety,'' said Jenny Nimer, a department assistant secretary who helped author the changes.
The case centers on past requirements that officers make periodic visits to the homes or workplaces of probationers, with the number of visits based on the offenders' backgrounds and potential risks. Schultz said, for example, that such visits were required at least once a month for "maximum" cases --- which she said can include people who have served long prison terms and have records of violent crimes.
The department approved the restrictions because it faced a $79 million budget deficit this fiscal year, Nimer said. In February, it paid $277,000 in probation-related travel reimbursements, a total that dropped after the change to $99,000 in March and $80,000 in April.
Nimer said the department intends to lift the restrictions when the 2012-13 fiscal year starts July 1. Some visits, such as to the homes of sex offenders, have not been restricted.
McArthur listened to nearly five hours of arguments and testimony about the issue and will likely rule this summer.
Offenders are required to go to probation offices once a month and provide information about such things as where they live and work. But Schultz said it is critical for officers to visit homes to verify the information, look for signs of possible criminal activity and make sure probationers are complying with requirements such as curfews.
"When the offender just comes into the office and fills out a report, he can say whatever he wants,'' said Schultz, who has a current caseload of 43 people, with the majority either sex offenders or "maximum" cases.
The challenge in the Division of Administrative Hearings, however, centers on more-arcane questions of rule-making instead of whether restricting visits is a good idea or jeopardizes safety. State law often requires agencies to go through a public process of adopting rules when changing the way policies are carried out.
The department argues that documents outlining the travel restrictions are "internal management memoranda" that are not subject to rule-making. Also, it contends that such information is not subject to the state's public-records laws because it involves "surveillance techniques."
"Rulemaking in this area is not feasible, practicable or advisable,'' the department said in court document. "Requiring the Department of Corrections to promulgate restricted surveillance techniques and procedures would violate the confidentiality required for effective surveillance and supervision of parolees and probationers."
But Teamsters attorney Holly Van Horsten said Wednesday that the department's actions are a rule that significantly affects the jobs of probation officers. She also said the issue deals with officers making contacts with probationers --- not surveillance --- and that the department was trying to "fly under the radar" by describing it as a travel matter.