Crist taps McNeil as new chief
Published: Wednesday, January 16, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 16, 2008 at 12:00 a.m.
TALLAHASSEE - Walter McNeil will take over Florida's prison system, following the tenure of a reform-minded administrator who helped redirect the troubled agency.
- * Name: Walter Amos McNeil
- * Age: 52
- * Family: Wife, Gloria; three children
- * Education: Bachelor's degree from the University of Southern Mississippi; master's degree in criminal justice from St. Johns University in Springfield, La.
- * Experience: Current secretary of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (appointed in January 2007); served for 10 years as police chief of Tallahassee, capping off a 28-year career as a Tallahassee police officer that began in 1979.
But McNeil will face his own new challenges, including a burgeoning prison population.
The 52-year-old secretary of the Department of Juvenile Justice, McNeil will replace outgoing Department of Corrections Secretary Jim McDonough, Gov. Charlie Crist announced Tuesday. McNeil's starting date and new salary haven't been set, the governor's aides said.
Crist, who said he first got to know McNeil when he was the Tallahassee police chief, said one of McNeil's main leadership skills is understanding "how to bring people together.''
"This is a guy who you can sort of see his heart in his work, it is apparent and obvious in how he comports himself, how he treats others and the compassion that he has,'' Crist said.
McNeil's appointment marks another milepost in his rapid rise in state government. A year ago, Crist selected the then-Tallahassee police chief to take over the state's juvenile justice agency, which was dealing with its own problems, including the death of a 14-year-old boy in a Panama City "boot camp.''
McNeil began his public career as Tallahassee police officer in 1979, rising through the ranks to become police chief in 1997, running a city agency that had 345 sworn officers and a $42 million budget.
Now, McNeil will be taking over an agency with the most state workers - 28,000 - and a $2.3 billion annual budget.
McNeil said he is ready for the job, noting that each of the agencies he has run has presented an increasing challenge.
"I believe, and I'm honored that the governor also believes, I'm ready to step to the table and deal with those issues regardless of the scale,'' he said.
McNeil will be following McDonough, a no-nonsense leader who got high marks for redirecting the prison system after it was plunged into scandal by former DOC Secretary Jim Crosby, who was convicted of taking kickbacks.
McNeil said he would seek McDonough's advice as he begins his new job.
Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, who has worked with McNeil and McDonough in developing criminal justice budgets in the last few years, called McNeil a compassionate, level-headed administrator.
But he said the state prison system "is very challenging and very difficult to manage - it's easy to get burned out there.''
"McDonough was the best we could ever hope to have and he did an incredibly awesome job,'' Crist said. "He did a lot to turn the troublesome side of the agency around into a positive direction. The new secretary has some big shoes to step into, but he certainly has a good foundation to build upon.''
One immediate issue McNeil could face is the growing state prison population, which is projected to reach nearly 104,000 inmates by summer 2009. McDonough has recently warned that the system is "danger close'' to reaching its capacity, which could force the state to consider the politically controversial move of releasing inmates early.
Sen. Crist, who oversees the criminal justice budget in the Senate, said he doesn't think the overcrowding crisis is imminent, as long as the state continues to fund new prison beds. In its new budget request, the agency is seeking $3.2 billion, including $650 million related to construction of new facilities.
McNeil said the prison population as well as other issues, such as providing more mental health care for inmates, are some of the issues he expects to face. But he likened the situation to dealing with "an elephant,'' saying he would deal with the problems "one step at a time.''
He also said in his year as the juvenile justice secretary he has gained some experience in working with the budget and legislative process, noting as a state agency leader he has already faced "austere budget constraints.''
McNeil does bring a longer track record in law enforcement to the agency than McDonough, whose primary experience was in the military, where he rose to a rank of colonel in the U.S. Army.
Union officials said McNeil's experience as a law enforcement officer and administrator should help in his dealings with correctional officers, who were sometimes at odds with McDonough over what they characterized as his rigid leadership style.
David Murrell of the Florida Police Benevolent Association called McNeil "an excellent appointment.''
The PBA did not have any serious confrontations with McNeil when he was the Tallahassee police chief, saying he had "an open-door policy'' and was "very well respected by the Tallahassee police officers,'' Murrell said.
Murrell said the correctional officers expect a different leadership style from McNeil than they had under McDonough or his predecessor, Crosby.
"Jim Crosby was too loose,'' Murrell said. "McDonough was too far the other way; he was too firm. Hopefully, McNeil will land some place in between.''
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