County staff authorized to proceed with initial investigation into whether site of Central Energy Plant in downtown Sarasota could be used for 200-bed secured treatment center operated by Sheriff’s Office

Opening of such a facility could allow county to renovate oldest section of the detention center, sheriff says, and delay need for new jail

A graphic explains the operations of the Central Energy Plant and shows its current location in downtown Sarasota. Image courtesy Sarasota County

With the funding already available, the Sarasota County Commission this week authorized the county’s Health and Human Services Department staff to work with a consultant and other county departments to determine whether a 200-bed jail diversion facility could be constructed on the downtown Sarasota site of the county’s Central Energy Plant.

Wayne Applebee, senior manager of Health and Human Services, said it would cost $15,000 for what he characterized as “a quick look.”

The Central Energy Plant — or “chiller” — will be replaced by a new facility that will stand on part of the surface parking lot of the county parking garage located at the intersection of Ringling Boulevard and School Avenue. (Staff anticipates seeking commission approval this spring of a construction contract for what has been dubbed the Downtown Cooling Plant, according to a memo provided to the board in advance of the Feb. 25 meeting.) The existing chiller is located at the intersection of Main Street and East Avenue, Applebee noted during his Feb. 25 presentation to the County Commission.

The construction of the 200-bed secured treatment facility would serve as a setting for inmates who have substance abuse and “co-occurring disorders,” including mental health issues, Applebee explained. The goal would be to help those individuals overcome their problems, undergo job training and receive other assistance so they could re-enter society on a path to stability, Applebee and Sheriff Tom Knight pointed out.

This graphic offers details that will be included in the analysis of the Central Energy Plant site. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Moreover, Knight told the commissioners, the completion of such a facility would enable the county to pursue the renovation of the West Wing of the jail, which is the oldest of the detention center’s three sections. Between use of the secured treatment facility and a remodeled West Wing, Knight said, his Corrections Division likely would have enough room for inmates for the next 20 years, delaying the time commissioners would have to consider constructing another jail.

Knight put the cost of a new detention center at $125 million.

He reminded the commissioners that the jail has 984 permanent beds, and that capacity can be expanded to 1,026 with the addition of temporary beds. However, he added, “We’ve been over the rated capacity the entire time I’ve been sheriff.” Counties comparable in size to Sarasota County have more space in their jails, he noted, showing the board a graphic prepared by Marissa Cellini, the department’s special projects administrator.

This graphic compares the incarceration rate, jail capacity and available capacity of Sarasota County with data from counties of comparable size. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

The request to proceed with investigation of the potential site for the 200-bed jail diversion facility was among three topics Applebee reviewed with the commission this week. All were recommendations of the county’s Criminal Justice Commission, which includes Kimberly Bonner, chief judge of the 12th Judicial Circuit Court; State Attorney Ed Brodsky; Public Defender Larry Eger; the sheriff; and Karen Rushing, clerk of the Circuit Court and county comptroller.

These are the members of the county’s Criminal Justice Commission. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The other two proposals, whose implementation the commission also approved this week, are as follows:

  • An Early Case Resolution Program, with an annual operating cost estimated at $297,684. It would target people charged with low-level felonies who are in the jail. An assistant state attorney and a public defender would be assigned to the program, Applebee explained. They would meet routinely to review new cases to determine those that could be resolved more quickly. The Criminal Justice Commission anticipated 600 participants would be served in the first year, with cases being closed in less than 30 days, on average.
This graphic offers details about the expenses of the Early Case Resolution Program. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In response to commissioners’ questions, Knight explained that thefts and burglaries are among third-degree felony counts. People addicted to drugs will steal items, he said, so they can pawn them and then use the proceeds to buy more drugs.

He also explained that his officers typically do not charge persons for possession of small amounts of marijuana, unless the misdemeanor is a second offense in concert with a DUI count, for example. “I think our society has culturally said that they don’t want law enforcement messing with marijuana charges,” Knight told the board.

  • A 40-bed secured residential treatment and re-entry program as a three-year pilot project, whose annual operating cost was put at $2,629,234. The expense of modifying an existing structure on the grounds of First Step of Sarasota would be about $651,000, Applebee said. This program would be designed for male offenders with substance abuse or co-occurring disorders, in an effort to reduce their time in jail and lower their recidivism rate, Applebee explained. The targets for the first year of this program, he noted, would be to serve 120 people. That would avert an estimated 7,200 days in jail, he added. Further, based on data, he continued, less than 30% of the participants likely would be re-arrested within 12 months after their discharge.

First Step’s website says the nonprofit “prevents and treats alcohol and drug addiction and associated disorders.”

This graphic offers details about the expenses of the 40-bed Secured Residential Treatment Program. Image courtesy Sarasota County

It would take eight to 10 months to complete the renovations of the First Step building, Applebee said, so that program likely would not get underway until August 2021. Thus, he said, the total cost of the structural modifications and operations for the first year have been put at $1,308,309.

Applebee explained that staff members “feel very comfortable with the operating costs for three months [of the 2021 fiscal year].” However, he noted, “Construction costs could fluctuate,” depending upon the bids the county receives.

Commissioner Charles Hines, who made the motion to approve the Criminal Justice Commission’s recommendations, stressed of the 200-bed secured facility, “It’s not a come-as-you-are [homeless] shelter.” He asked Applebee if it would be accurate to describe it as “a more modern, best practice-type of treatment that the old jail facility really doesn’t allow.”

Applebee responded that that description was consistent with the Criminal Justice Commission (CJC) members’ vision.

Hines noted that he attended the CJC meeting in late January, when that group took its vote on the recommendations. “These are subject matter experts that have been working on this for a number of years,” he emphasized of the members. They do not, as a rule, agree on everything, Hines added, which underscored the significance of their unanimous vote.

This is the anticipated timeline for implementing the pilot Secured Residential Treatment Program. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Moreover, Hines said, “I’ve studied this [issue] as much as I can, but I’m not going to second-guess these recommendations, ’cause [the CJC members] live with this every day.”

Kim Radtke, director of the county’s Office of Financial Management, showed the board members how the expenses of all three initiatives — including the 200-bed facility — could be covered by the county budget through the 2025 fiscal without an increase in the millage rate. However, she noted, while the county could maintain its 75-day disaster reserve fund, it would not be able to keep its Economic Uncertainty Fund at the 60-day level, which has been the goal.

Hines stressed that the best practice in Florida for the disaster reserve is funding for 60 days of operations. The county’s Economic Uncertainty Fund, he added, “is over and above that, just in case.” No law requires the latter, he emphasized.

Radtke confirmed that.

This graphic shows the budget adjustments to cover the expenses of the jail diversion programs. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Getting to this point

Last year, the County Commission engaged in several discussions with Knight, representatives of Court Administration for the 12th Judicial Circuit, State Attorney Brodsky and Public Defender Eger to come up with strategies for jail diversion programs to ease the crowding in the jail.

During his Feb. 25 presentation, Applebee of Health and Human Services pointed out that the most recent review of potential strategies took place on Aug. 21 2019. That day, the commission unanimously agreed to the 40-bed treatment center pilot program and the Early Case Resolution Program, and it directed staff to begin planning for the potential 200-bed secured facility. The commissioners asked for an update within six months, Applebee noted, which led to further discussions of members of a county work group that has been addressing innovative ideas.

Sheriff Knight has stressed for the past couple of years that law enforcement strategies have changed since he first took office in 2009. “We’re really going from jail to corrections,” Knight said on Feb. 25. The goal is to help make people better, he added; punishment for crimes related to substance abuse and mental health issues does not achieve that.

Everybody knows the definition of insanity,” Knight pointed out. The County Commission should not be spending large amounts of money on programs that do not help people become better members of society, he said. The 200-bed secured treatment facility, Knight continued, would be a good option.

Sheriff Tom Knight offers comments during a Feb. 26, 2019 workshop on jail diversion programs. File photo

In response to a question from Commissioner Christian Ziegler, Knight said the recidivism rate for inmates in the jail was, on average, 65% to 68% when he took office. It is down to a range of 55% to 56%, Knight added. “The people we’re targeting [for the jail diversion programs] are difficult customers — typically [those with] some type of mental health and substance abuse issues.”

As his staff has achieved success with such inmates through innovative programs, Knight continued, it has added more of those initiatives. During his 11 years as sheriff, Knight said, 50 programs have been launched in the jail to lower the recidivism rate and reduce homelessness.

The expectation is that those persons treated in the 40-bed facility — and, therefore in the 200-bed center — would have a recidivism rate of 30%, based on data about the success of treatment programs, Knight noted.

Ziegler concurred with Knight’s comments about the jail diversion programs. “We don’t want to pay the tab for the people that just need maybe a little bit of help” and are not a major risk to society.

“I believe building a correctional facility that’s modern, that will mimic what we’re already doing inside [the jail] will … reduce recidivism,” Knight stressed.

“We’ve got 200 people right now,” he pointed out, who could be served in such a center.