Former Philadelphia mob boss Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino will be making his home in a federal halfway house in West Palm Beach, Fla., for the next six months.

"It's not a bad place to be," Merlino's lawyer, Edwin Jacobs Jr., said Tuesday. "If I had to be in a halfway house, West Palm Beach is better than a lot of others."

Jacobs said he had spoken to Merlino by phone Monday after his release from a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind. Merlino was en route to Florida at the time.

He arrived at the halfway house Tuesday morning.

"He sounded great," Jacobs said. "He's healthy as a horse and has a great mental attitude."

Merlino's time in the halfway house is the final phase of a 14-year prison sentence after his conviction on racketeering charges in Philadelphia in 2001.

Jacobs, who represented Merlino in that case and several others, said Merlino planned to remain in Florida after his prison term ended.

"It's a 1,500-mile disconnect from his former life," said the defense attorney, who described Merlino as the "target of choice" for federal investigators.

"That wouldn't change if he came back to South Philadelphia," Jacobs said. "Joey's smart, and he realizes that."

Merlino was driven to Florida by his sister Natalie and a family friend, according to sources familiar with Merlino's travel plans. He left Indiana on Monday morning and, according to one source, spent a good part of the 20-hour drive talking to friends via cell phone.

Like Jacobs, the source described Merlino as upbeat and in good spirits.

Prison officials and federal authorities have provided few details about Merlino's current status. According to those familiar with the system, Merlino will spend two or three days being processed into the halfway-house program.

He will be required to find a job. Once he has found employment, he will spend nights and weekends in the facility but will be allowed to go to work each day.

Sources said the halfway house is part of the Salvation Army Center of Hope in West Palm Beach.

An official at the center declined Tuesday to answer any questions and said the facility was not permitted to discuss inmates or confirm who might be a resident.

Federal prisoners are apparently just part of the population at the 95-bed center, which also provides counseling and services for the homeless and those fighting drug abuse.

The facility, according to the Salvation Army Center of Hope website, "is located on a quiet, private, 8.5 acre campus with amenities that include ballfields, recreation and picnic areas . . . [and] also features a functional weight/exercise area, a large gymnasium, and both individual and team sports."

According to one source, Merlino is hoping to line up a job in the food industry and eventually would like to open a restaurant in Florida.

Jacobs said Merlino's wife, Deborah, and their daughters, 12 and 14, planned to move to Florida to be near him. But another source said that while Deborah Merlino intended to visit her husband in the halfway house, she was reluctant to uproot her children from their schools and home in North Jersey.

Once he is released from the halfway house, Merlino will be on supervised release for at least three years. During that time, he will be prohibited from associating with felons or individuals connected to organized crime.

Those who know Merlino say the outgoing, high-profile mobster would have a more difficult time abiding by those rules in South Philadelphia than he would in Florida.

Others, however, predict that Merlino will eventually return to Philadelphia, especially if a vacuum is created in the crime family.

Reputed mob boss Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi and several of his top associates are the targets of an ongoing federal racketeering investigation.

Several Merlino associates who were convicted with him in 2001 are back in South Philadelphia and would be in a position to reclaim control of the crime family should Ligambi and the others be taken off the streets in a new racketeering case.

Merlino and six codefendants were convicted of assorted racketeering charges, including gambling, extortion, and receipt of stolen property, during a lengthy trial that ended in July 2001.

The federal jury at that trial, however, decided that prosecutors had failed to prove several murder and attempted-murder allegations that were part of the case.

Merlino was acquitted of a separate murder charge during a federal trial in Newark a year later.

Jacobs said that prosecution in connection with a killing that was also included in the Philadelphia racketeering case exemplified the "target of choice" designation federal authorities had placed on his client.

Merlino, who celebrated his 49th birthday Sunday, has been in a jail since his arrest in Margate, N.J., in June 1999.

He spent time in federal prisons in Beaumont, Texas, and Marion, Ill., before being moved to Terre Haute about two years ago.

Contact staff writer George Anastasia at 856-779-3846 or ganastasia@phillynews.com.