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Aging Fla. county jail at capacity

Within two years, the aging facility will be full and essentially inoperable based on trends in the inmate population

By Zach Murdock
Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla.

VENICE — Sheriff Tom Knight delivered a sobering warning about the local jail to Sarasota County officials on Tuesday.

Within two years, the aging facility will be full and essentially inoperable based on trends in the inmate population, he and top jail leaders said. That projection backs the county into two options: Reduce the jail population or figure out how to build and pay for a new jail, a daunting and undoubtedly controversial undertaking that would take years and upwards of $80 million to complete, Knight said.

“I don’t want this on top of you in two years when I walk in with a crisis,” Knight told the County Commission at its meeting in Venice. “This is the time to start a discussion about the cost-benefit analysis about programs we could use to avert that crisis we project is looming now.

“We’re at that crossroads. I can’t control everything.”

The warning is not new, but it does come with a new sense of urgency as the facility’s population has changed.

The county jail on Ringling Boulevard, constructed in 1975, has extensive capital improvement needs and, technically, has been full for years.

Although the facility can physically hold 1,020 inmates, it’s “operational” capacity is 867 due to different separation needs, such as by gender or by felony or misdemeanor. The population hovered in the 900s for several years, dipping below the operational capacity last year, and now sits at capacity with 870 inmates, Courts and Corrections Division Commander Maj. Jeff Bell said.

But for the first time, more inmates have been arrested on felonies than misdemeanors, which has serious implications for turnover in the facility.

“Arrest rates are declining” overall, Bell said. “What that signifies normally, of course, would be a smaller jail population. But you also will see not only does the arrest rate effect jail population, but the seriousness of those charges will have a significant impact as well.”

At 61 days, the average stay for inmates facing felony charges is almost three times that of those with misdemeanors, according to the Sheriff’s Office analysis. The average length of a sentence is roughly the same, at 103 days for a felony, excluding prison sentences, and 32 days for a misdemeanor.

The jail will run out of space rapidly should that trend continue, but Knight said he wants to avoid the need for a new jail.

He argues the trend also highlights the success of the past five years’ focus on programs for those facing misdemeanor charges, such as the work offender program, re-entry program, homeless outreach programs and specialty courts like the new comprehensive treatment court launched by Circuit Judge Erika Quartermaine.

The county invested millions in those programs, but the expenses pale compared with the borrowing that would be needed to build a new facility, Knight said.

The Sheriff’s Office proposed holding workshops to address drug and theft-related third-degree charges, which make up the bulk of the shift in the jail population over the past several years, Bell and Knight said. A significant portion of those also are inmates returned to the jail after violating their probation, which underscores the need to invest in rehabilitation programs, Bell added.

“You have a sheriff that is open-minded and believes in recovery,” Knight said. “Not just from a philosophical standpoint; I believe it’s cheaper than building cells.”

But those programs are expensive and require additional personnel, either within the county or the Sheriff’s Office, so the county needs to begin planning, Knight said. Just two weeks ago the commission approved its new budget, which took effect Oct. 1, by exhausting one of its savings accounts and vowing to make budget cuts during the year to restore that fund.

“You control a lot. You have the checkbook; let’s be real about it,” Knight said.

The commissioners agreed they want to pursue programs to reduce the jail population before serious consideration of building a new facility. Outgoing County Administrator Tom Harmer suggested the county staff will work with Knight’s staff to host a workshop on specific plans for programs to deal with the jail population.

“In all of these instances, there will always be the subject of money and we have to openly look at that square in the eye and see when that money is going to be needed,” Commissioner Alan Maio said.
(c)2017 Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla.

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