Work group asked to continue discussions on new measures to reduce the number of people sent to jail

Sheriff Tom Knight cites latest statistics showing increase in jail population

A chart provides a comparison of statistics for the Sarasota County Jail. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

Although arrests are down, Sheriff Tom Knight has reported to the Sarasota County Commission, the jail population continues to exceed the facility’s operational capacity.

In late November 2017, when Knight addressed the board about the need for more jail diversion measures, he noted that 883 people were being held in the facility. On June 13, when he again stood before the commission, the figure had climbed to 976.

The situation has necessitated the distribution of 50 portable beds throughout the jail, Knight pointed out.

The average length of stay for individuals also has been increasing, Knight continued. On Nov. 28, 2017, for those with misdemeanor charges, it was 32 days; those with felony charges — excluding those serving prison sentences — were in the facility an average of 103 days. By June 13, he noted, the average length of sentence for those with misdemeanor convictions was 86 days; for those with felonies — again, excluding people with prison sentences — it had more than doubled, to 249.

“Unfortunately, this is outside the sheriff’s office control, as we are not involved in bonds, court processes or sentencing,” Kaitlyn Perez, the department’s community affairs director, pointed out in a June 13 email, responding to a Sarasota News Leader request for the data Knight had shown the board.

Additionally, the new chart Knight provided the commissioners said that from late November 2017 to June 13, the misdemeanor population had declined from 28% of the total to 18%, but the felony population had risen from 69% to 81% of the total. “The felonies are going up,” Knight told the commissioners, “just like we anticipated.”

A county staff memo lists the representatives involved in the work group. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Knight added, “I don’t know … why our [jail] population is up and our arrests are down,” calling the situation, “kind of odd.”

Nonetheless, Knight stressed, the operational capacity of the jail is 867 because of the need to separate men from women and juvenile inmates from adults, for example.

“I can’t even imagine what the cost would be,” Commissioner Charles Hines said, if the board had to start planning for a new jail wing. “I’ve heard some astronomical numbers.”

Knight’s June 13 appearance before the board came as Wayne Applebee, the county’s human services manager, and Kimberley Wiles, the county’s criminal justice policy coordinator, reported on regular meetings of a work group that had been taking place since early February to try to settle on proposals that could reduce the jail population.

Wayne Applebee. File photo

Applebee reminded the commissioners that, after listening to Knight’s concerns on Nov. 28, 2017, they directed County Administrator Jonathan Lewis to work with the Sheriff’s Office “and all relevant parties,” as a June 13 staff memo characterized the request, “to assemble a workgroup to develop strategies in preventing unnecessary incarceration within the next 90 days and report back to the Board.”

The continuing problem for the County Commission, as Hines and Chair Nancy Detert pointed out, is that the county does not have the financial resources to implement 13 recommendations the work group members agreed are important.

However, on a motion by Hines, seconded by Commissioner Paul Caragiulo, the board did unanimously approve the implementation of six jail diversion strategies that would require no additional funding. As the second part of the motion, the board requested further planning and implementation strategies for those measures that would necessitate additional county expense.

Commissioners emphasized during their budget workshops this week that they want the work group members to continue discussions of the proposals that have costs attached and settle on perhaps two or three as their top recommendations. Then the board would like to consider those proposals.

Applebee said on June 13 that the staffs of the 11 agencies involved in the work group would continue research and evaluation of the strategies.

The News Leader calculated the total estimate for those requiring more funding to be $8,079,082. The most expensive proposal on the list was $3 million for a “Secured treatment and re-entry program” with 100 beds; it would help defendants with substance abuse issues or “co-occurring disorders,” according to a matrix Wiles showed the commissioners.

The program would be operated by the Sheriff’s Office in a secured setting, the matrix noted. It would be expected to serve 300 people a year.

On the lower end of the estimates, a $65,000 “behavioral change program” that could be provided to inmates as part of their sentences would be able to serve 600 people a year and reduce recidivism, the matrix said.

Current programs and new priorities

A chart shows estimated costs for some jail diversion programs. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The work group members prioritized their lists according to three specific strategies, Applebee explained: those that would divert individuals from jail; those that would reduce the length of time people spend in jail; and those that would reduce recidivism. The strategies, he noted, are those the work group members agreed on, by consensus, as their recommendations to the County Commission. They considered the services that would be provided, the number of people served or kept out of jail, and the annual estimated cost per person “to help determine which provides the highest return on investment,” the June 13 staff memo said.

“This year, a lot of the [state] money has been sucked into private prisons and has hurt our local … First Step,” Chair Detert summed it up. “I think First Step has a remarkable track record of doing a lot of good work for very few pennies,” she added.

In May, the Florida Department of Corrections announced plans to reduce by $30 million the funding for contracts with 33 agencies that provide substance abuse treatment and re-entry services, the staff memo noted. That was a 40% cut, the memo said. “It is anticipated that First Step of Sarasota will lose approximately $500,000,” the memo added; the organization would have reduce from 52 to 30 the number of beds in its men’s facility and from 10 beds to six in the women’s facility. Harvest House will lose 18 beds that serve as transitional housing for people released from jail who have substance abuse issues, the memo continued. If those funding reductions occur, as expected, the release said, “our community will lose 44 treatment beds that continue to be in high demand during this current opioid epidemic.”

Detert emphasized the need for community leaders to work with legislators to “reduce penalties and offer treatment rather than incarceration.”

Among successful strategies already at work in the community are the Comprehensive Treatment Court (CTC), which began on March 1, 2017, thanks to County Judge Erika Quartermaine’s championship of the initiative and her efforts to obtain City and County commission support of it — as well as a state grant. Through April 16, Wiles said, the CTC has provided care for 89 individuals, 82 of whom were homeless upon admission. Altogether, the 89 people had a total of 1,303 arrests among them. The CTC has had 33 successful graduates, she added, meaning those people were able to get into housing, begin earning incomes and have been following up on their primary and behavioral health needs.

Another successful strategy, Wiles explained, has been diverting individuals from jail as a result of Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training for law enforcement officers. That program teaches officers how to recognize and respond effectively to individuals with symptoms of mental illness and substance abuse and divert them into appropriate treatment programs instead of taking them to jail. Sixty percent of all Sarasota County law enforcement officers have received CIT training, Wiles pointed out.

A third is the DUI Court, which was established in 2008. “It is intended for individuals who have had at least one prior DUI conviction,” the staff memo said. From June 2008 through December 2017, the memo continued, DUI Court saw 390 participants graduate. Eighty-six percent of them are less likely to commit new violations of the law, statistics show; only 3% have received another DUI, the memo added. Additionally, DUI Court participants have contributed more than 10,388 hours of community service since the program’s inception, the memo pointed out.

Among strategies that would not entail new expenses are the following, Wiles said:

  • Exploring the use of non-monetary bonds to prevent incarceration that results from the accused person’s inability to pay a bond.
  • Exploring the expansion of the Pretrial Intervention Program to include people arrested for driving with a suspended license.
  • Exploring the use of Notice to Appearcitations in lieu of arrest by law enforcement agencies.

Court Administration representatives are working with Chief Judge Charles E. Williams of the 12th Judicial Circuit Court on those recommendations, she said.

Next steps?

A second chart shows estimates for more jail diversion strategies. Image courtesy Sarasota County

After Wiles completed her presentation, she told the commissioners, “I know we laid a lot of strategies on you. The board may need time to maybe digest these and have conversations about what makes sense for our community.”

Commissioner Hines thanked all the work group participants and then agreed with Wiles that the entire list of 19 strategies is “a lot. We need to digest them a little bit.”

He was pleased, he continued, that public perception in the United States has changed over the years. Jailing people with drug and alcohol abuse issues and mental health problems no longer is seen as being effective, he added.

Detert suggested that Applebee schedule one-on-one meetings with the commissioners to gauge their views on the strategies that had been recommended. “I think this is going to take a much longer discussion.”

With the commissioners scheduled to hold budget workshops this week, Hines suggested the potential for board discussion on the options that necessitate funding from the county.

County Administrator Jonathan Lewis pointed out, “They obviously won’t be in the budget [for the 2019 fiscal year].” However, Lewis added, he liked the idea of further discussion of them, though he noted that the June 19 and June 20 workshops “are pretty chock-full.”

Lewis did caution against the one-on-one sessions. “I don’t want a perception of polling.” Nonetheless, he said, staff members would be happy to meet with board members who were interested in further discussion.

Detert responded that she would like more details about the recommendations.

In response to a question from Hines, Applebee said that staff would continue working with the appropriate agencies on implementation of the options that entailed no new funding from the county.