- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 10, 2014

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Gov. Rick Scott is turning to a veteran of state government to try to turn around Florida’s troubled prison system that has been under scrutiny for inmate deaths, abuse and allegations of cover-ups.

Scott on Wednesday announced he was appointing Julie Jones, who once led the agency that oversees the state highway patrol, to take over the Department of Corrections in January.

Jones, 57, becomes the first woman in state history to lead Florida’s prison system, which houses more than 100,000 inmates, has more than 20,000 employees and a nearly $2.3 billion budget. She will earn $160,000 a year.

Scott, without mentioning the ongoing scandals directly, said in a statement that Jones would make sure the agency is run with “integrity.”

“It is evident through her work across state government that she is a true reformer who is laser-focused on ensuring accountability and transparency,” Scott said.

Jones had retired earlier this year from state government after leading the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles for five years. Before that job she had worked 26 years at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, including spending time as the director of law enforcement for the agency.

When she retired last May, Jones received a lump sum retirement payment of nearly $622,000. She will also start receiving regular retirement payments of $9,730 starting in May 2015.

Jones is replacing Mike Crews, who resigned last month.

Crews instituted a crackdown over allegations of systemic abuse and failure to punish guards when inmates are harmed. Agency employees were fired and the department adopted a zero-tolerance policy for employee misconduct. Dozens of cases in which inmates died of non-natural causes are under investigation.

Jones, who will take her new job on Jan. 5, said her top priority will be to ensure the safety of Floridians. But she added in a statement that it was her “commitment to build a strong culture of ethics at DOC to ensure transparency for all Floridians.”

While Jones rarely ran into controversy at her previous job, she was forced to abandon a plan to privatize license tag services. Jones had argued that the move would save money by letting private companies make tags and distribute mail and online orders. But she abandoned the idea under pressure from the tax collectors, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater.

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