Reliance on Justice Funding Nearly Closed Center’s Program

In an interview with ADAW last November, the president
and CEO of Florida offender treatment agency
Bridges of America maintained that because criminal
justice services constituted its core mission from day
one, there was no serious consideration of diversifying
into other service areas (see ADAW, Nov. 21, 2011).
That resolve was tested mightily since Bridges of
America learned two weeks ago that two of its seven
contract programs with the Florida Department of
Corrections were threatened with an imminent shutdown.
How did Lori Costantino-Brown respond to the news?
She didn’t stray from her stance to remain fully immersed
in offender services, and she didn’t back down
from a fight to keep the two reentry programs in
Manatee and Broward counties from closing.

The effort paid off. As ADAW was going to press,
Bridges announced that it had reached an agreement
with state corrections officials that will keep the two
reentry programs open, though one of the sites and
another contract site run by Bridges will now operate
at a smaller bed capacity.

Under the compromise reached with the state, “We
won’t have to pull people out of treatment or off of
jobs,” Costantino-Brown told ADAW March 8. “What
everybody knew was if they shut these programs, they
would never come back.”

Some might observe that the Orlando-based Bridges
of America was finding itself in an awkward position in
recent days, in that it was arguing publicly and loudly
against the policy direction of a state agency on which
it depends for virtually all of its funding. But before the
compromise was reached, Costantino-Brown was by
no means hesitant to discuss her concern and even anger
over the situation in which her agency found itself.
While she and state officials clearly agreed that helping
to plug a $79 million deficit in the corrections
department’s current-year budget was behind the
planned closings, Costantino-Brown contended that
state officials’ initial decision to target two of her organization’s
reentry programs while keeping a similar
state-run program intact was motivated by an effort to
protect public-sector union jobs.

“They’re not going to look to their own house,” Costantino-
Brown had said March 5 in reference to state officials.
“The transition programs started with us. When
it’s done by community providers, it works.”

Vagaries of funding

Funding uncertainty doesn’t exactly represent a
newfound status for Bridges of America, which has
operated programs based on a therapeutic community
model since the early 1980s. Around 2003, the
organization was probably in its most precarious state,
as cutbacks in correctional spending essentially gutted
Florida’s in-prison treatment programs and left offender
services focused mainly on diversion and reentry
programs at the front and back end.

The programs that the state had intended to close in
Manatee and Broward counties are made available to
offenders who have less than a year remaining on their
prison sentences. The transitional services that Bridges
of America offers to these inmates include peer-run
programs that assist individuals in developing longterm
recovery plans with behavioral, social, spiritual
and physical health dimensions.

Costantino-Brown said she received a Friday afternoon
phone call in late February from the deputy secretary
of the state Department of Corrections, who informed
her that the transitional centers in Manatee and Broward
counties would be closing by March 31. By the
following Monday, a formal written notice had been
received, at which time the state had the authority
to shutter the programs at any time thereafter, she
explained.

The two programs have been in operation for about
seven years and cost just over $5 million combined to
operate. Costantino-Brown said closings would have
necessitated layoffs of about 75 of her staff’s 200-plus
employees. The Broward County program serves male
offenders and the Manatee County program serves
women.

A spokesperson for the Department of Corrections
told ADAW March 7 that the closings were not yet
a done deal, with state officials still discussing final
plans. The spokesperson did say at the time that the
department had been looking at numerous options
for savings in response to the $79 million departmental
budget deficit.

“We actually have closed a lot of state-run facilities as
well,” the spokesperson said. She added, “These particular
sites were costing us more than others run by
the same company.”

Under the compromise that was announced the next
day, the Manatee County program will remain open
under its traditional capacity, while the Broward
County program and a third reentry program operated
by Bridges will lose about 148 beds out of a current
combined capacity of about 420.

This amounts to about a $2 million cut for Bridges, as
opposed to the $5 million cut that closing two programs
entirely would have represented, Costantino-
Brown said. She said that the two downsized programs
will not accept new intakes until the lower capacities
are reached.

“Current participants won’t be penalized,” she said. “In
light of where we started from a couple of weeks ago, I
consider this a victory.”

Costantino-Brown says Bridges’ reentry programs in
Manatee and Broward counties actually operate at a
lower per diem cost than an existing state-run reentry
program. “These are our two flagship programs,” she
said of the Manatee and Broward County sites.
Moreover, Costantino-Brown suggested that even
existing service levels at the back end of incarceration
don’t come close to meeting the overall need in the
state system. “Even with the state-run and private providers,
there are 900 [reentry] beds in the whole state,
and we have 20,000 people coming out of prison,” she
said.

She said the corrections department’s deficit was
caused by a number of factors, including slowdowns
in plans to privatize some prison facilities as well as
correctional medical services (thus delaying anticipated
savings for the state from privatization).
She added that Bridges also has had to absorb small
across-the-board cuts of 2 percent to its other contracts
with the state as a result of the departmental
deficit.

Advocacy strategy

Bridges of America launched an aggressive advocacy
strategy almost from the moment that the Friday afternoon
call came in last month. It enlisted the services
of an outside public relations firm, which in tandem
with in-house staff issued multiple news releases and
action alerts about the impending closings.

A four-page news release and fact sheet that was sent
out on March 2 states that the closings would actually
end up costing the state $1 million because of the
need to keep candidates for reentry programs incarcerated
when program slots shrink.

The news release quoted everyone from the city of
Bradenton’s mayor to program graduate Shawn O’Neil,
who now owns a catering business. O’Neil said the
program “transformed my life,” adding, “Now, as a successful
business owner, I am blessed to be able to try
to transform others by hiring inmates and graduates of
Bridges.”

Costantino-Brown consistently walked the halls of
state legislative offices in Tallahassee in recent days,
and she said she believes that was part of what helped
her organization’s position gain some traction. At a
recent appropriations hearing, she said, several lawmakers
were upset to hear of the corrections department’s
plans. “The public outcry has been huge,” she
said, including from offenders’ families.

Looking longer-term, Costantino-Brown still does not
foresee any deviation from Bridges’ historical mission
of serving the offender population. Her late father,
Bridges founder Frank Costantino, became a Christian
while serving a prison sentence and vowed upon his
release to help others avoid the revolving door of the
criminal justice system.

“We’ve looked at some alternatives for services, like
maybe juvenile services, but there you’re in the same
boat [with funding],” Costantino-Brown said.

 

By Gary Enos

Reliance on justice funding nearly closed center’s programs
was first published in Alcoholism & Drug Abuse
Weekly Volume 24, No. 11, March 12, 2012.

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