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Lawmakers angry over decision to shut inmate re-entry centers in Broward, Manatee

The final days of a legislative session is the worst time for a state agency to create a full-blown political disaster, but that's what happened Friday with the Department of Corrections.

Struggling with a $79 million budget deficit, DOC decided to save $1 million in the current year's budget by shutting two faith-based re-entry centers that teach inmates work and life skills as they prepare to rejoin society. The centers, run by Bridges of America, are in Manatee and Broward counties. The head of the budget conference committee on prisons, Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, is from Broward, and said she has been beseiged with calls of complaint about the decision.

Bogdanoff demanded that Corrections Secretary Ken Tucker explain the decision at a hearing Friday, but Tucker was absent, and two aides were on the receiving end of wrath from Bogdanoff and Reps. James Grant, Rich Glorioso, Gayle Harrell, Eric Eisnaugle and Ray Pilon, all Republicans, who repeatedly said re-entry programs are more effective and cheaper than locking non-violent inmates in state prisons.

Bogdanoff was frustrated because closing the centers means 300 inmates will be returned to the general prison population, a point DOC Deputy Secretary for Operations Mike Crews confirmed. "There's a strong chance that most, if not all, of those individuals in those programs would go back into those institutions," Crews testified.

Glaring at Crews and DOC budget chief Mark Tallent, Bogdanoff said: "I would ask you at this point to work more closely with the Legislature in understanding the impact to our communities before you do what you do."

Ironically, in a recent message to all DOC employees, Tucker touted the many advantages of re-entry programs as an effective way to reduce recidivism. Bridges has run the centers since 2005, but Crews said there is no specific legislative appropriation to run them. Bridges is represented by a half-dozen lobbyists, including Barney Bishop III, Mark Flynn and Fred Leonhardt, all of whom had front-row seats to watch prison officials endure the lawmakers' criticism. The provider is considering filing a lawsuit to keep the centers open. --- Steve Bousquet