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Ex-Florida Prisons Chief Lands New Mexico Job

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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/News Service of Florida) – Former Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones will take a similar post on the other side of the country, after being hired by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to head New Mexico's prison system.

"Julie Jones had one of the toughest jobs in the country, and I'm thrilled she's agreed to come to New Mexico," Lujan Grisham said in a news release Thursday announcing Jones' appointment. "Our Corrections Department needs assertive, proactive leadership, and Julie has demonstrated her ability to enact change in a statewide prison system."

Jones led Florida's corrections agency --- the third-largest in the country --- for four years after being appointed by former Gov. Rick Scott in January 2015. Before that, Jones had spent three decades in law enforcement at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

Jones appeared Thursday at a news conference in Santa Fe with Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who made history as the country's first Hispanic female governor after her November election.

"This is a fantastic opportunity to share what I've learned in Florida in a different state. I can use my years of experience in public safety, which is my passion, to further similar goals in New Mexico," Jones told The News Service of Florida in a telephone interview while en route to the airport Thursday evening.

As New Mexico's secretary of corrections --- a Cabinet post that requires Senate confirmation --- Jones will oversee a prison system that's just a fraction of the size of Florida's. The daily inmate population averages less than 7,000, and approximately 20,000 offenders are on supervision, compared to Florida's 96,000 inmates behind bars and about 167,000 on supervision.

Scott, now a U.S. senator, tapped Jones to head the Florida prison system as it was under intense scrutiny because of inmate deaths and alleged misconduct.

During her tenure, Jones was faced with an aging inmate population, crumbling infrastructure and, a prison-funding crisis that, in the words of Republican state Sen. Jeff Brandes, has been "festering for years." Last year, the chronically strapped prison system was running about $80 million in the red.

A privatized prison health-care system also created problems for the state, with the corrections agency going through a series of companies in an attempt to provide services.

And Jones grappled with workforce issues such as high turnover and vacancies, launching an incentive program in an attempt to lure workers to prisons.

"Leading a department of more than 24,000 employees and with a budget of $2.5 billion, Jones oversaw the development of a new rehabilitative strategy, a reorganization of the department's regional and central office structures and established new fiscal standards and a recruitment and retention strategy," Thursday's news release said.

While the size of the prison system is much smaller at her new job, Jones predicted the issues will mirror those in Florida.

"Prison systems across the country suffer from the same basic ills, and New Mexico is no different. So, we're going to put together a strategic plan to address vacancy rates, retention of officers, caseloads for probation officers and chart a really robust path to increase rehabilitative services inside and outside the prison," she said.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who took office Jan. 8, replaced Jones with Mark Inch, a retired U.S. Army major general who also worked as director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

When asked if she had any trepidation about moving to the other side of the country, Jones laughed.

"I did. I told the governor that today, at the press conference. I said, no humidity. No trees. Totally different, but I am thrilled to be here. It's a big move, but I still have more to give, and it's an opportunity that was offered very graciously to me by the governor of New Mexico, so I took it," she said.

(©2019 CBS Local Media. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The News Service of Florida's Dara Kam contributed to this report.)

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