County expected to get more than $8 million through 2039 from national opioid settlement

Commissioners agree on potential use of funds to establish permanent version of Community Offender Rehabilitative Treatment program as jail diversion measure

Image from the National Institute on Drug Abuse

In April 2018, the Sarasota County Commission voted to engage the services of a law firm that handles cases of a national nature, “to investigate and litigate claims involving the manufacture, distribution, and sale of prescription opioids,” as then-County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht put it in a July 7, 2021 memorandum to the County Commission.

As a result, Sarasota County is expected to receive an estimated $8.3 million through 2039 from a national settlement with six companies that distributed the prescriptions, including Walgreens, CVS and Walmart, a county document shows.

Additionally, as Chuck Henry, director of the county’s Health and Human Services Department explained to the current commission on May 22, Sarasota County will receive regional funds.

During the same meeting, as part of a later discussion, Chair Michael Moran indicated one potential use of some of that settlement money.

An April 13, 2021 letter from Florida Chief Deputy Attorney General John M. Guard to then-commission Chair Alan Maio reported that “Florida’s interstate allocation [from the national settlement] is 7.03%.” It is the second largest, he pointed out, behind the amount going to Texas.

Guard proposed that three “pots” be established to hold the money expected to come into the state: one for cities and counties, which would contain 15% of the proceeds allocated to Florida; a regional fund that would hold between 30% and 40% of the total settlement amount coming to Florida; and a state fund, which would contain the remaining 45% to 55% of the total amount coming to Florida, depending on the ultimate criteria for establishment of the regional fund.

Chuck Henry addresses the commissioners during a 2022 meeting. File image

Henry of Health and Human Services told the commissioners on May 22 that the county received $420,189.44 in the 2023 fiscal year and $920,268.79 in this fiscal year, for a total of $1,340,458.23 from the county/city fund. Staff expects approximately $5 million a year from the regional fund, he noted.

County Health and Human Services staff has met multiple times already with representatives of the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) to discuss the rules for use of the funds. Additionally, Henry said, his staff has discussed proposed uses of the money with leaders of the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office.

The money, he emphasized, must be allocated to measures related to opioid use, including treatment initiatives.

The following, he showed the commissioners, are staff’s recommendations:

  • “Expand Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) services in the Sarasota County Correctional Facility [the jail], to include but not limited to medication costs, additional staffing and provision of evidence-based services (estimated $600,000).”
  • Expand the Reentry Services within the county jail, including the hiring of an additional Reentry Navigator ($209,818.87).
  • Have the county put aside 5% of any funds received to cover administrative expenses for programs, as allowed ($67,023).
  • Have the commissioners review the findings from the 2021 Sarasota County Mental Health Task Force Report related to Opioid Use Disorder and Substance Use Disorders/Mental Health disorders for approved purposes.
  • Retain a balance to allow the commission “flexibility as it continues to enhance prevention and intervention strategies, programming, and services for those with Opioid Use Disorder and substance use disorders/mental health disorders.
  • Hire a subject matter expert to research evidence-based programs to improve service delivery and expand treatment for those impacted by Opioid Use Disorder and other substance use disorders/mental health disorders ($500,000 for 16-week engagement).”

Of the latter, Henry said, “I think that’s a really great thing to do.”

He added that he plans to be back before the board in early July, during a regular meeting, to provide more details about the money and how it can be used.

Following the presentation, Commissioner Ron Cutsinger pointed out that the board members have been “waiting a long time for this.”

Commissioner Neil Rainford added, “Certainly, the regional money is a bigger pot … I would like to see how that could be maximized …”

Then Commissioner Mark Smith noted the “18-year spread of the funds coming to us and the challenge we have to budget it appropriately.” He emphasized the expectation that the annual sums from the county pot will diminish over time. “Unfortunately,” he said, “the need probably won’t …”

Commissioner Joe Neunder did ask Henry for clarification about whether the county would receive any of the money in the state pot. Henry said it would not.

Chair Moran brought up a potential use of some of the funds, suggesting that the board members let Henry move on to the next agenda item. That regarded the pilot Community Offender Rehabilitative Treatment program (CORT), which the commissioners seated on Feb. 25, 2020 approved for three years.

Exploring the idea of a permanent program

A May 22 county staff memo explained that the CORT was planned as a secured residential treatment program “for adult male, low-level felony offenders, with substance abuse and/or co-occurring mental health disorders.”

The primary goal was to reduce recidivism. The individuals assigned to CORT would be kept out of the jail and, instead, allowed to obtain the help they needed to prevent their participating in future criminal activities.

Then-Sheriff Tom Knight offers comments during a Feb. 26, 2019 County Commission workshop on jail diversion programs. File photo

From 2017 into 2019, then-Sheriff Tom Knight talked at length with the commissioners about the fact that jailing persons with substance abuse and mental health problems was not going to help them, but it was going to lessen the amount of time before the county needed to build a new correctional facility.

A building at First Step of Sarasota was renovated to house the CORT program, the May 22 county memo pointed out. “First Step held its ribbon cutting on December 9, 2021, with four clients in the program …” The facility first reached its 40-bed capacity on April 1, 2022, the memo added.

The pilot program will expire on Sept. 30.

Yet, as Moran noted again on May 22, problems ensued.

Henry of Health and Human Services introduced Chief Judge Diana Moreland of the 12th Judicial Circuit to explain recent action that has appeared to resolve the issues that the CORT program was experiencing.

As chief judge, she told the commissioners, she chairs the county’s Criminal Justice Commission. At one of that advisory board’s meetings this year, she said, “We got sort of a firecracker awakening” about the CORT process.

During that meeting, she said, an evaluation of the program took place. Instead of relieving the jail’s overcrowding, Moreland added, the CJC members saw that the population had been climbing. “We are carrying a load of about 1,100 inmates at any one time,” she pointed out, when the certified jail capacity is 836.

Then Moreland explained that only three judges in the 12th Circuit in Sarasota County handle all of the criminal felony cases. Each is assigned about 1,400 filings a year, she noted. “That’s a high case load.”

The CORT program, she stressed, “is desperately needed by my three criminal felony judges.”

Moreover, she said, the Criminal Justice Commission (CJC) members have expressed full support of the program.

Moreland cited statistics from an Oct. 31, 2023 report on CORT, prepared by the county’s Health and Human Services staff, to underscore the program’s value. Examples follow:

  • The goal was to serve 120 individuals over three years; already, 143 have participated in the program.
  • A second goal was for 60% of the clients to successfully complete their treatment. The result has been 89%.
  • Another goal called for 30% of the individuals who successfully completed the program to avoid being rearrested within 12 months of discharge. The result has been 72%.

Further, Moreland told the commissioners, 90% of the participants have indicated that they were satisfied or very satisfied with the program’s services.

The only goal that has not been achieved, according to the report, is the one calling for 75% of the individuals who complete the program successfully to secure at least part-time employment within six months of discharge. Of the 78 clients who met the first criterion, the report noted, only 50 — or 64% — were able to secure employment within six months of discharge. However, the report noted that five clients did not respond to the survey.

These are charts in the October 2023 Health and Human Services report on the CORT program. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Moreland pointed out that a major factor regarding that statistic was the COVID pandemic, when federal and state measures to protect the public included closing businesses.

She also noted that the CORT program was expected to save money, compared to the average jail bed cost of $91.43 per day. In the 2022 fiscal year, the report said, the diversion of 98 clients to the program meant $952,792 in savings related to use of jail beds. In the 2023 fiscal year, the program’s 106 clients meant savings of $1,030,599, the report added.

A chart in the report showed that for the 2022 and 2023 fiscal years, the county spent $5,250,143 on the CORT program. The amount of jail bed and booking costs saved as a result was $2,382,002, for a net investment of $2,868,141.

A figurative lighting of a firecracker

Moreland acknowledged to the commissioners, “We’ve had temporary dips [in the number of offenders assigned to CORT]; hence, the need for the firecracker and the explosion for what’s going on.”

On Feb. 12, she continued, she created a subcommittee of the CJC, comprising Major Brian Meinberg, commander of the Sheriff’s Office’s Corrections Division, State Attorney Ed Brodsky of the 12th Judicial District, and 12th District Public Defender Larry Eger.

“We started looking at [where] we were going south,” she added.

It finally became clear, Moreland said, that Brodsky and Eger had different criteria for recommending offenders to the program.

During the CJC meeting on April 18, she continued, they reported that they had come to an understanding on the criteria.

This is data included in the October 2023 Health and Human Services report. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Given the breakthrough, she noted, the CJC members believed the likelihood existed that a waiting list for the CORT program would be needed. “That has come to fruition.”

Moreland emphasized the need to maintain the program after the pilot period ends. “It is extremely valuable to the community,” she said, and “it is fiscally responsible.”

“I really appreciate your leadership on this, Judge,” Chair Moran responded. “You weren’t the chair [of the CJC] when this whole thing started. You grabbed it and choked it to the floor to get it right.”

Chief Judge Diana Moreland addresses the commissioners on May 22. News Leader image

“I have a reputation,” she replied with a laugh.

“I see opportunity here,” Moran continued. With a new iteration of the program created, carrying a new name, he said, perhaps some of the opioid settlement money could be allocated to it, as the program appeared to meet criteria for use of those funds. Nonetheless, he emphasized, “It’s still $52,000 a week to the taxpayer [in expenses].”

“I can’t think of a better source [than the county and regional pots of settlement money],” Commissioner Cutsinger said, to pay for the program after it has been re-established as an ongoing means of reducing recidivism and lowering the jail population.

“With this opioid money that’s coming down,” Commissioner Neil Rainford added, “it just makes complete sense to … fund that program …”

Then County Administrator Jonathan Lewis told the board members that if they wanted to direct him to do so, he and other staff members could schedule a future discussion of the use of the settlement funds, including the continuation of the CORT program.

“With a new name,” Judge Moreland concurred.

Lewis said he anticipated the discussion could be scheduled in July, before the commissioners take their annual four-week summer break.

Appearing to have the consensus of his colleagues, Moran offered that direction to Lewis.