Commissioner Moran again rails at under-utilization of multimillion-dollar jail diversion program that commissioners approved in 2019

Pilot program at First Step of Sarasota has capacity for 40 inmates needing substance abuse and/or mental health treatment, but fewer than 30 being served on average

On Nov. 15, Sarasota County Commissioner Michael Moran reprised concerns he aired in February regarding the expense of a new county program established in an effort to reduce the jail population.

As he did on Feb. 23, Moran on Nov. 15 pointed to data to stress that too few people were being assigned to the Community Offender Rehabilitative Treatment Program (CORT) facility at First Step of Sarasota.

In February, he told his colleagues, “We have a burn rate on this of about $217,000 a month.”

On Nov. 15, also during a regular commission meeting, Moran asked Chuck Henry, director of the county’s Health and Human Services Department — and the county’s Health Official — “Who is responsible for this program?”

Henry replied that the county’s Criminal Justice Commission recommended it to the County Commission. That body comprises people such as the chief judge of the 12thJudicial Circuit, the state attorney and the public defender. The members’ goal, a county webpage explains, is to ensure that the criminal justice process is “is efficient, cost-effective and timely,” and they determine the best ways to manage assets and reduce crime.

The County Commission agreed to establish a 40-bed pilot program, Henry continued on Nov. 15. The Health and Human Services staff monitors the program, Henry added.

The commissioners approved it in late August 2019, as they were completing their budget work for the 2020 fiscal year.

“We were at capacity at the jail,” Moran pointed out. The plan, he continued, was to “give some relief to the jail” and help people who had been arrested because of mental health and/or substance abuse issues.

An Oct. 12, 2021 document that Henry submitted to County Administrator Jonathan Lewis, regarding county-funded health services for the 2022 fiscal year, explained that the CORT initiative “will provide services in a secured setting with focus on substance abuse and co-occurring disorders, changing criminal-thinking patterns, re-entry programming, and job training.”

“Re-entry” refers to offenders being released following treatment.

With the program in operation, the document added, staff expected “7,200 jail days will be averted.”

His perception, Moran continued on Nov. 15, was that “there’s just a huge need” for the program, which led him to believe “there would be a huge waiting list for this.”

Moran also stressed that the commissioners had allocated $2.76 million to the CORT Program in the 2022 fiscal year, with the same amount proposed for the 2023 fiscal year, which began on Oct. 1. He added that the CORT figure was the equivalent of 88% of all of the funds that the county’s Human Services Advisory Council had recommended for programs in the 2023 fiscal year.

“And we’re not at capacity” in the CORT Program, Moran emphasized once more.

“Would you still recommend this [program]?” Moran asked Henry.

“I think it’s too early for me to make that judgment,” Henry replied.

“I don’t get that,” Moran replied.

Henry pointed out that he and his staff had just completed a report on the first six months of the CORT Program’s operations and had provided the draft to county administrative staff for review. He added that he would hesitate to make any recommendation until he saw all of the data for the first year that the CORT Program was in effect.

Through the first eight months of the program’s existence, Henry said, it had served 95 persons; staff had projected that 120 individuals a year could be helped. “They’re moving along well,” he said of those involved in the process.

Initiatives such as the CORT Program, Henry stressed, have long-term value if they reduce recidivism. However, he noted, “That takes a little longer to unwind,” through a review of data compiled over time.

Moran told his colleagues on Nov. 15 that the latest CORT Program report he had received, for the previous week, showed only 27 of the 40 beds at First Step were being used, with one other offender scheduled for admission, for a total of 28 beds.

That Nov. 9 report also noted that 23 individuals were awaiting “Criminal Justice Approval” before being admitted, and five others were being assessed for inclusion in the program.

A note at the bottom of the chart said, “First Step regularly reports bed vacancies to the State Attorney’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office and the Courts. All Offenders in the Criminal Justice Approval Process have been approved by First Step but must still complete approval processes with the State Attorney’s Office and the Public Defender’s Office to reach an agreement on those approved for transfer from the jail to the CORT program. This process can take time for all legal aspects of each offender’s case to be reviewed.”

During the Nov. 15 discussion, Henry explained those details to the commissioners. The sign-off from the State Attorney’s and Public Defender’s office, Henry said, usually is the primary reason for delays in those transfers from the jail taking place.

The Nov. 2 weekly report on the CORT Program showed 28 beds were filled, with 26 persons in the approval process and one other person scheduled for admission.

The Sarasota News Leader had requested the CORT Program reports, which the county’s Public Records staff provided to the publication.

Moran asked Henry if he knew whether representatives of the State Attorney’s Office and the Public Offender’s Office — “and any other stakeholders” — had conducted any meetings with First Step’s personnel to figure out why the program was not at capacity each week.

The best answer he could provide, Henry said, is “I know that they meet regularly” to discuss jail diversion efforts.

Finally, Moran called for a thorough discussion of the program during the board’s Dec. 9 retreat. Nonetheless, he said, “I would argue that there’s plenty of time that we could have figured this out” since the August 2019 decision to proceed with establishing the program.

Facts and figures

Former Sheriff Tom Knight, who was still in office when the commissioners approved the CORT Program, was an advocate for jail diversion initiatives.

Knight told the board members on a number of occasions that law enforcement had changed considerably over the years he had been involved in the profession. One of the major changes, Knight noted, was the realization that people who committed crimes because they were addicted to drugs or suffering with behavioral problems did not get better from confinement in jail. Instead, they needed professional assistance to help them become productive members of society.

In August 2019, Henry of Health and Human Services told the commissioners that the projected annual cost of the CORT Program would be $3,825,694, plus a one-time expense of $500,000 for renovations to a building on the First Step campus to ensure that it would be a secured facility, as the people in the program still would be inmates.

Later, in February 2020, county staff revised the annual operating expense to $2,629,234.

In an October 2021 funding request that Henry submitted to County Administrator Lewis, the total amount of money sought for the program for the 2022 fiscal year was $2,762,502, all of which would go to First Step. The commissioners approved that amount on Oct. 12, 2021.

The CORT Program figures compared to Sheriff Knight’s estimate that a new jail could cost as much as $130 million. Moreover, Knight emphasized to the commissioners that, around the time he began his first successful campaign to become sheriff — he won election in 2008 — county residents had expressed ardent opposed to construction of a new jail. Much of that public discussion focused on concerns about where the facility would be located.

The News Leader this week also requested and received the past four county reports, as of Nov. 16, showing the jail’s population counts. The facility has 948 permanent beds, Knight told the commissioners on multiple occasions. However, he also pointed out that its capacity could be expanded to 1,026, with the addition of temporary beds.

The average inmate count for the week of Oct. 13 through Oct. 19 was 1,012, that report showed. The highest figure on a given day during that period was 1,018, on Oct. 13; the lowest, 1,002, on Oct. 19.

The average for the week of Oct. 20 through Oct. 26 was 994. For that period, the highest count was 1,009, on Oct. 20; the lowest was 991, on both Oct. 21 and Oct. 24.

For the week of Oct. 27 through Nov. 2, the average climbed back up to 1,012. The lowest inmate count during that period was 994, on Oct. 29; the highest was 1,038, on Nov. 1.

The final report the News Leader received covered Nov. 3 through Nov. 9. That week, the report said, the average inmate total was 1,039. The high for that period was 1,054, on Nov. 9; the lowest was 1,015, on Nov. 5.

Sheriff Kurt A. Hoffman, who succeeded Knight, has remained an advocate of the CORT Program. In response to a News Leader request for a statement about his views on the program, following Moran’s February comments, Kaitlyn R. Perez, the Sheriff’s Office’s community affairs director, wrote, “Sheriff Hoffman is 100% committed to the CORT program. In fact, several of our employees including the Sheriff were at the CORT ribbon-cutting [in November 2021]. 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.”

Asked this week whether that position had changed, Perez replied in a Nov. 16 email, “Sheriff Hoffman’s thoughts are really still the same as they were in February. Obviously, when utilized, the CORT program is another community resource and program that alleviates the jail population and helps connect citizens to services they need. Keep in mind, we only transport participants in the program from the correctional facility who have been sentenced to the program by the court system. We deliver those ordered into the program as soon as we receive the paperwork. That really is our only involvement with CORT.”