Citing high expense for low number of offenders being served by new jail-diversion program, Commissioner Moran gains board support for detailed report on referral process

Community Offender Rehabilitative Treatment Program has ‘burn rate’ of about $217,000 a month, Moran says

Commissioner Michael Moran expresses his concerns about the CORT program on Feb. 23. News Leader image

Sarasota County Commissioner Michael Moran sounded an alarm this week over county expenses for a jail diversion program that is supposed to be serving 40 persons at a time but, as of the latest count he had, was serving no more than 12.

In December 2021, he told his colleagues, only seven people were confined to the Community Offender Rehabilitative Treatment Program (CORT) facility at First Step of Sarasota.

“We have a burn rate on this of about $217,000 a month,” Moran stressed during the commission’s regular meeting on Feb. 23, referencing the annual expense for CORT. Since the program opened in late November, he added, “We’ve burned through $600,000.” Yet, he pointed out, the launch should not have come as a surprise to any of the entities involved in ensuring clients can enter the program. “We were constructing this facility for months.”

He called for a report explaining “what in the world’s going on here.” Later, Moran pointed out, “If there’s a bottleneck in this, we need to know. If not, we need to stop the pilot program,” which the board agreed could operate for three years.

Ultimately, the commissioners directed County Administrator Jonathan Lewis to ensure that they receive regular updates about the number of people in the program.

Additionally, Lewis said, Chuck Henry, director of the county’s Health and Human Services Department, would work with the members of the county’s Criminal Justice Commission (CJC) on providing a more detailed analysis for the county commissioners about the status of CORT, including details about why so few people have been assigned to the program.

Chair Alan Maio asked for that report by March 8, when the board members will conduct their next regular meeting.

Lewis reminded the board members that the CJC was the entity that recommended the program among a number of options to reduce the jail population, after then-Sheriff Tom Knight warned the commissioners about continued overcrowding in the jail.

Presented to the County Commission in February 2020, this graphic compares incarceration rates and jail capacity of Sarasota County and counties of comparable size. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

Knight stressed on a number of occasions, prior to his 2020 retirement, that he did not want to have to ask the commissioners to construct a new jail. Such a facility could cost well above $100 million, he said, though, in March 2019, he revised that upward to about 130 million. Prior to his first election as sheriff, he also emphasized, community controversy had flared over the potential location of a new detention center in the county.

The jail has 948 permanent beds, Knight noted during various appearances before the commissioners, though that could be expanded to 1,026 with the addition of temporary beds.

In its 2021 Annual Report, the Sheriff’s Office said its average daily jail population was 943. (See the related article in this issue.)

The groundwork and the results so far

In February 2020, this was the anticipated timeline for implementing the pilot CORT Program. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed its launch. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In late August 2019, as they were wrapping up budget decisions for the 2020 fiscal year, the commissioners agreed unanimously to the establishment of a 40-bed, secured facility on the First Step campus. At that time, Henry of Health and Human Services (HHS) said the projected annual cost would be $3,825,694, plus a one-time expense of $500,000 for the renovations to the building First Step would use.

Then, in an updated report in February 2020, staff projected the annual operating expense would be $2,629,234. Moreover, the decision had been made to renovate an existing First Step structure, which staff explained would reduce the overall expense of the pilot program.

During that commission meeting, Kim Hirsch, the county’s criminal justice policy coordinator, reported that the members of the CJC believed the residential treatment program would serve 120 people a year. “Basically, 7,200 jail days would be diverted,” she said, predicting that the average stay for an offender would be 60 days.

Explaining the CORT process

The focus of Moran’s Feb. 23 remarks was a Feb. 14 report on CORT that Henry provided to County Administrator Lewis, who, in turn, had sent it to the commissioners on Feb. 23. A note Lewis wrote at the top said, “I have been working with staff to help better understand the CORT process. [T]his is the beginning of the review not the end.”

Moran reminded his colleagues that he has been serving as their representative on the First Step board of directors. Therefore, he continued, he had learned of the CORT program’s low offender counts even before he received the report from Lewis.

The Feb. 14 report from Henry noted that First Step opened the CORT program on Nov. 22, 2021. “Through this program,” Henry wrote, “inmates are released from the jail and transferred to this secured, treatment facility.”

Chuck Henry addresses the county commissioners on April 7, 2021. File image

Henry further explained that First Step and Health and Human Services (HHS) staff had collaborated on mapping out how the program would work. “The focus,” he continued, “was more heavily weighted on [First Step’s] treatment requirements and programming, rather than the approval steps required in the Criminal Justice (CJ) system which allows the transfer from jail to the CORT program. Now that the program is operational,” Henry wrote, “additional focus on the approval steps in the CJ system is needed to help streamline the transfer process.”

Henry did note that, during the Jan. 31 Criminal Justice Commission (CJC) meeting, representatives of First Step reported that 10 clients were in the facility, four others were in the assessment process, and 11 were “waiting on orders and/or transports from the jail to the facility.”

On Feb. 14, he pointed out, 12 clients were in the First Step facility, 12 others were being assessed, and 17 were awaiting criminal justice approval and/or transports from the jail to the facility.

Henry also noted that First Step representatives had “reached out to the CJ stakeholders for points of contact in all agencies to help streamline the workflow process.”

Then he explained that the agencies that refer offenders to the CORT program are the Public Defender’s Office for the 12th Judicial District, the State Attorney’s Office for the district, the Sheriff’s Office, Drug Court, “and/or private attorneys.”

This is the referral process for the CORT program, as shown in the Feb. 14 report from Chuck Henry to County Administrator Jonathan Lewis. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The referring agencies “contact First Step and request a clinical assessment of offenders who meet the criminal justice criteria,” Henry continued. That criteria was agreed upon by all of the referring agencies, he noted. The criteria say the offenders must have been charged or convicted of low-level felonies; they must be male; and they must have had a minimum of two prior arrests. “Both pre-trial and sentenced offenders may qualify,” he noted.

An offender also must have been diagnosed with a substance abuse disorder and/or a mental illness disorder and be non-violent, he wrote, “although history of violent charges may be reviewed on a case-by-case basis if the offender otherwise meets all other program criteria.”

Henry further pointed out that, following the CJC discussion last month, HHS staff scheduled a Feb. 4 meeting that included Chief Judge Charles Roberts of the 12thJudicial Circuit, “who presides over the Specialty Courts, all CJ stakeholders, and First Step of Sarasota …” The purpose of that meeting, Henry added, was to update and provide more details of the Criminal Justice requirements for approving offenders for the program, “to help streamline the approvals and transports to the facility.”

‘This is taxpayer money’

During his Feb. 23 comments, Commissioner Moran emphasized of the CORT program, “There should be, if you ask me, a waiting list today of people to get the treatment they need.”

Moran added that he had spoken with Sheriff Kurt A. Hoffman, who was elected in November 2020, succeeding Sheriff Knight. Hoffman had told him, Moran continued, that as soon as he receives authorization to transfer an inmate to the CORT facility, “There will be a seat belt buckled on these folks” and they will be taken to First Step’s campus. “I believe him very much,” Moran told his colleagues.

“I’m trying to put healthy pressure on this,” Moran said. “This is taxpayer money.”

“I understand your anger,” Commissioner Nancy Detert responded. “What I’d like you to do is … keep your powder dry … I think you’re shooting at the wrong target.”

She added, “We foisted this on Frist Step,” at the recommendation of former Sheriff Knight. “And now you’re making it First Step’s fault for failing,” Detert told Moran. “Give the recipient of this unwelcome gift some time to make the most out of the … program.”

This is information about First Step’s programs. Image from the nonprofit’s website

As she has many times in the past, Detert talked about her work with First Step when she was in the Florida Legislature and the fact that she holds the nonprofit in high regard. “They’re the only ones that take our substance abusers, whether they’re court-ordered or volunteers … and they do a pretty remarkable job.”

Detert further questioned whether Sheriff Hoffman, as Knight’s successor, supports the CORT program, even though his staff is involved in the offender transfer process.

When The Sarasota News Leader requested a statement from the Sheriff’s Office in response to Detert’s remark, Kaitlyn R. Perez, the agency’s community affairs director, wrote in a Feb. 23 email, “Sheriff Hoffman is 100% committed to the CORT program. In fact, several of our employees including the Sheriff were at the CORT ribbon-cutting. It is important to understand however, that we can only transport participants in the program from the correctional facility who have been sentenced to that program by the court system. We promptly deliver those ordered into the program as soon as we receive the paperwork. There is no delay on our part and unfortunately we have no control over who goes in the program. We would like to see it be successful just as much as our five commissioners.”

Moran agreed with Detert about First Step’s part of the process. “This is not First Step’s issue,” he added. “I don’t want a report from First Step; I want a report from [county] staff.”

Citing a chart contained in the Feb. 14 report from Henry of HHS, Moran noted the multiple parties in the referral process for offenders. “This reeks of government inefficiency,” he said, again emphasizing the program’s cost. “This board is responsible for the $54,000 [in expenses] every week.”

Still, he acknowledged, “There is no one culprit in this.”

This chart in the Feb. 14 report show details of the assessment and approval processes for the CORT program. Image courtesy Sarasota County

County Administrator Lewis told the commissioners that providing them weekly reports on the number of offenders in the program “is easy.” However, Lewis continued, “There has to be healthy pressure” to improve the timeline for referrals.

In response to Lewis’ comment about the weekly reports, Detert said, “That’s just tracking the numbers. … What I would like to see is for our staff to communicate with all the players, including the Sheriff’s Department.”

Perhaps County Administrator Lewis could create a working group with representatives from each of the agencies or offices involved in ensuring offenders are referred to the program, Detert said.

“The working group is a great idea,” Lewis replied. Henry of HHS already is at work on that, Lewis told her. “I think we can help facilitate all these discussions …”

Commissioner Christian Ziegler then voiced a desire “for whatever reporting we can get, so we can keep an eye on [this],” adding that he wanted to see progress made.

If the CORT program does not prove effective, he pointed out, the commissioners might need to reconsider allowing it to continue for the full three years.