County Commission calls for workshop to discuss concerns about rising jail population and potential of hiring consultant to help with decision on building new detention center

Commissioner Moran points to fact that construction of new jail would be a years-long project

These are the jail population figures for Oct. 18 through Oct. 25. Image courtesy Sarasota County

With Sheriff Tom Knight having appeared before them again in late October to reiterate concerns he expressed a year ago, the Sarasota County commissioners are planning a workshop in early 2019 to discuss the potential need for a new jail.

That session will include information from the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, the Office of the State Attorney, the Public Defender’s Office and Court Administration, as well as details about past board discussions related to potential locations for a new facility, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis indicated.

Commissioner Michael Moran raised the issue during the board’s regular meeting on Nov. 7, pointing out, “[At a minimum], you’re talking about a four-year timeline, if everything was humming, including multiple election cycles, most likely,” to get a new facility constructed.

Moran noted that it probably would take two years just to design a new jail and put the project out for bid. He also referenced the fact that voter approval of a bond referendum for the project would be necessary.

These are the jail population figures from Oct. 25 through Nov. 1. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On Oct. 23, Knight estimated the expense of a new jail at $103 million. In response to a Sarasota News Leader question last week, Emergency Services Media Relations Officer Ashley Lusby explained in an email that under the guidelines of Section 5.2(D) of the Sarasota County Charter, the county has to seek voter approval to issue bonds above a certain limit. As of Oct. 1, the bond limit is $23,712,978, Lusby noted. The figure is updated annually, she added, based on the language in the Charter.

“It’s just an incredibly complex situation with the jail overcrowding,” Moran pointed out on Nov. 7. “I’m not normally a person that would push for consultants,” he added, but perhaps it would be a good idea for the board to hire a consulting firm with expertise in jails to advise it on how to proceed. He did indicate a desire, though, to ascertain the expense that would be entailed in taking that step.

When Lewis asked for clarification from Moran about whether he was proposing a consultant to work with all the affected parties “as a whole” on the issue of a new jail, plus the estimate of the expense, Moran told Lewis that that was correct.

On Oct. 23, Knight provided recent figures to the commissioners showing trends in the jail population. For example, the inmate count was up 12% year-over-year on Oct. 10 — from 930 on that date in 2017 to 1,042.

As he has explained in the past, the operational capacity of the three separate wings of the facility in downtown Sarasota is 867 because of a variety of factors, including the necessity of separating female and male inmates and keeping juvenile inmates out of the adult population.

“I don’t think the community wants to build a new jail,” Knight said at the time. “I don’t think that this commission wants to build a jail.”

Yet, Knight indicated, at some point, no other solution might exist.

Commissioner Michael Moran. File photo

Moran also suggested on Nov. 7 that if the commissioners discuss a referendum for a jail, they might consider including in that measure the funds for a new structure for the District 12 Medical Examiner’s Office.

Dr. Russell Vega, the medical examiner for the district comprising Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties, for years has pointed to the need for bigger, consolidated facilities. However, when the Sarasota board was considering a potential $200-million bond referendum in 2016 to pay for a proposed new Sheriff’s Office campus and Medical Examiner’s offices next to the county’s Emergency Operations Center on Cattlemen Road, the Manatee County Commission did not express any willingness to partner on the expense of the Medical Examiner’s Office facilities.

Later, in large part because of concerns Sheriff Knight expressed about putting such a referendum on the 2016 General Election ballot, the Sarasota County commissioners chose not to proceed with the initiative. For example, Knight told the News Leader that he was worried the contentious nature of the presidential campaign might lead to voters choosing not to participate in the November election.

Board members’ concurrence

His “light bulb moment” about the jail issues, Moran pointed out on Nov. 7, was the realization that the County Commission has no control over the Sheriff’s Office, the Office of the State Attorney, the Public Defender’s Office and Court Administration. “None of those,” he emphasized. Yet, they are the entities within the county with the most influence on the jail population. The only control the County Commission has, he continued, regards whether to construct a new detention facility.

Commissioner Alan Maio said Moran “makes a great suggestion” about hiring a consultant to help the board.

“I am on the exact same page,” Commissioner Charles Hines added. “I think a workshop would probably be appropriate.”

Hines then noted that staff is providing the board a report each week on the jail population, using data from the Sheriff’s Office.

On Oct. 25, the inmate total was 1,043, with an average of 1,022.875 for the week of Oct. 25 through Nov. 1.

The Sheriff’s Office has had to purchase mattresses this year to contend with overcrowding in the jail. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

As Knight has pointed out twice in the past year, violation of probation cases have been a significant factor in the rising inmate figure. The average number of adult males incarcerated for those violations the last week of October was 105, the report showed; for adult females, 29.875.

The commission needs to consider both short-term and long-term responses to the inmate population, Hines continued.

“We’ve implemented several types of programs,” he added, referring to jail diversion initiatives — including a daily new Violation of Probation Court — in the 2019 fiscal year, which began on Oct. 1.

The Violation of Probation Court “may make a difference,” Hines said, “but only in the short-term.”

Then Hines noted that he had discussed the issues with County Administrator Lewis, who already had staff researching materials produced over the years, as well as prior board discussions, regarding a new jail. Included in those documents, Hines added, is information about the location of the Central Energy Plant — or “chiller” — in downtown Sarasota. It stands next to the Criminal Justice Center and the east wing of the jail, at the corner of Main Street and East Avenue.

A graph shows the trends in the jail population. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

That facility provides air conditioning to a number of county facilities, including the jail, the Silvertooth Judicial Center and the Terrace Building, which houses the main offices of the supervisor of elections, tax collector and property appraiser.

A graphic presented to the County Commission in March 2013 shows the location of the Central Energy Plant in downtown Sarasota. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The commission in June agreed to construct a new facility on the surface of the county’s Ringling Boulevard parking lot, across from the offices of the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County on School Avenue.

“Is that space sufficient to expand the jail?” Hines asked, referring to the current chiller’s location. “We need some experts here.”

Commission Chair Nancy Detert noted the jail diversion programs the board has funded, adding, “You have to give [them] time to kind of vegetate.”

She suggested waiting six months before considering whether to proceed with a discussion about hiring a consultant. “I would feel more comfortable [then].”

Nonetheless, the majority of the board members indicated a desire not to delay the timeline for the discussion.