County commissioners suggest one-on-one discussions with Sheriff’s Office staff and workshop to deal with concerns about growing jail population

Climb in low-level felony charges — especially those related to drug use — seen as biggest problem

A graphic shows population trends for the Sarasota County Jail. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

In 2008, when he was campaigning for his first term as sheriff of Sarasota County, “the jail was a hot topic,” Tom Knight told the Sarasota County Commission on Oct. 10. “People didn’t want a new jail.”

Members of the public were fretful about where a new facility might be constructed, Knight continued, with the “not-in-my-backyard” stance aired frequently.

Since Knight’s election, he and his staff have worked with judges and the county’s Court Administration staff on strategies to reduce the number of inmates in the three structures that comprise the county detention center in downtown Sarasota.

“We had over 1,000 inmates in the jail” in late 2008, Knight said. “We’ve done really well over eight years with misdemeanors,” he added, referring to those programs that have kept many of the lowest level of offenders from remaining behind bars.

However, with the recent rise in felony arrests — many of them related to the opioid abuse crisis — “what we’re anticipating could be problematic in two years,” he pointed out: The jail would be beyond its capacity.

A graphic in the presentation Sheriff’s Office staff had prepared for the County Commission showed that since 2012, 21% to 23% of total arrests have been for third-degree felonies, and close to 50% of those have been related to drug use or prior drug charges. The figure for third-degree felony larceny arrests is slightly above 35%, the chart shows, with burglary/breaking and entering coming in at about 25%.

So far this year, according to Sheriff’s Office statistics, 33% of all third-degree felony arrests were drug-related, for a total of 2,459. Additionally, 19% of all inmates in the jail are there on third-degree felony charges for drug-related crimes.

Knight said he and his staff “want to do a little bit more to avert that crisis … that we believe is looming in front of us … with third-degree felonies.”

A graphic compares the jail population in Sarasota County to the figure for other counties. Image courtesy Sheriff’s Office

To try to forestall the need to construct a new facility at a cost Knight estimated between $75 million to $80 million, Commissioner Alan Maio suggested that representatives of the Sheriff’s Office’s senior staff meet one-on-one with the board members and then that the two groups conduct an expansive work session to discuss strategies.

Knight also voiced his hope that the commissioners would work with other stakeholders — including the State Attorney’s and Public Defender’s offices, as well as Courts Administration — to encourage them to collaborate with the Sheriff’s Office on new tactics to help low-level felons stay out of jail.

Knight pointed out that the County Commission is “in charge of the finances” for those stakeholders.

“You have a sheriff that is open-minded and believes in recovery,” Knight added. “I believe that it’s cheaper than building cells.”

With the consensus of the other commissioners, County Administrator Tom Harmer said he and his staff would work with Knight’s staff to arrange those sessions.

“There’s really no substitute for direct contact” between the two groups, Chair Paul Caragiulo told Knight.

The discussions also will encompass concerns Knight has expressed about the Quality of Life Ordinance that the board members will consider in a Nov. 14 public hearing. (See the related article in this issue.)

The jail population

Major Jeff Bell. Photo courtesy Sheriff’s Office

Major Jeff Bell, a 34-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Office who is commander of the Courts and Corrections Division, showed the board the graphics and statistics that underscored Knight’s introductory comments.

The current population of the jail, Bell said, is 930 inmates, with 69% of them having been arrested on felony charges.

For the first time, Bell pointed out, “Our felony arrest rates have exceeded our misdemeanor arrest rates.”

Of all those arrested in 2017, 49% have been charged with felony counts, the graphic showed, and the average length of their stay in jail is 61 days. That compares to 25 days for a person incarcerated on a misdemeanor count.

The average time between booking and sentencing for a felony conviction is 128 days, the graphic showed; for a misdemeanor, 77 days.

The average length of sentence for a misdemeanor is 32 days; for a felony, 103 (excluding prison sentences), the graphic added.

Over the past five years, Bell continued, the Sheriff’s Office’s arrest rates have been declining. The number was 15,987 in 2012; the total anticipated at the end of this year is 9,500.

Yet another serious concern, Bell noted, has been the fact that a number of people arrested on felony charges who have been granted pretrial release have not had “the tools in order to successfully complete their probation.” Those pretrial violation-of-probation cases have been climbing steadily since 2015, a chart showed, from just under 400 that year to close to 500 this year. That trend is expected to continue, Bell told the board.

Altogether, statistics show that 20% of the current jail population is in custody because of violations of probation, one graphic said, while 36% of the inmates have had a prior drug charge or a drug-related charge since 2012.

In terms of actual jail capacity, Bell explained that while the maximum number of inmates the detention center physically can hold is 1,020, the operational capacity is 867. “We can’t just take all the inmates and dump them into one cell.”

Not only are men separated from women, for example, he said, but those who are serving sentences must be confined separately from those who have not been convicted.

A bar chart compares arrest rates through the years for the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office. Image courtesy Sheriff’s Office

Then Bell discussed some of the strategies the Sheriff’s Office has pursued in cooperation with specific judges and Courts Administration to reduce the jail population. Among them are the Offender Work Program; specialty courts, such as those for veterans and those with drug addictions; and the homeless outreach initiative (SHIFTS).

The Sheriff’s Office suggests a closer look at treatment programs and other means of addressing needs of inmates with drug problems, Bell said, including intensive inpatient drug treatment.

“We’re not able to accomplish these things without your help,” Bell told the board members.

Board response

“It is not your role to come here once a quarter to give us a report on what’s going on,” Commissioner Charles Hines said at the conclusion of the presentation. The county needs a liaison working regularly with the Sheriff’s Office, Hines added, to keep the commissioners apprised of issues, such as the swelling jail population.

In an Aug. 18 letter to the board about the jail situation, Sheriff Knight pointed out that Wayne Applebee served in that capacity before Applebee became the county’s director of services for the homeless.

A graphic provides details about the county’s third-degree felony arrests. Image courtesy Sheriff’s Office

Knight told Hines that he would be happy to talk further with the board members about strategies to address the issues. “I wanted to get [this] on the radar screen,” he added of the jail population concern. Knight also encouraged the commissioners to talk themselves about their philosophies regarding incarceration and determine how best to move forward.

Chair Caragiulo agreed that confinement is probably the best means of addressing the actions of just a “very small part” of the jail population.

Commissioner Nancy Detert told Knight she believes the board members are “in tune” with Knight’s philosophy, but the big problem confronting them is their budget. She added that she felt a workshop with the Sheriff’s Office staff would be appropriate after the commission gets a better handle on the county’s budget.

Although he and Bell are among members of the county’s Criminal Justice Commission, Hines indicated, that group does not delve into details such as those Knight and Bell had presented that morning. Yet, Hines said, the commissioners “need this information for us to properly plan and fund what’s needed for public safety in the next couple of years. We don’t need to be protected from this information.”

Hines added, “We’re human beings up here, and the squeaky wheel that gets in front of us sometimes leapfrogs things ….”