Criminal justice changes implemented in pandemic keeping jail numbers lower and raising question about need for Early Release Program County Commission has agreed to fund

Both public defender and state attorney of 12th Judicial District agree that discussions should take place about potential to save about $300,000 a year

Public Defender Larry Eger of the 12th Judicial Circuit addresses the County Commission on July 1. News Leader image

Over the past couple years, especially, Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight and his staff watched and worried — as Knight has made clear — as the jail population continued to rise.

In discussions with the County Commission and representatives of 12th Judicial Circuit Court Administration and the State Attorney’s Office and Public Defender’s Office of the 12th Judicial Circuit, Knight has advocated for more initiatives to divert from the jail individuals whom Knight and his staff feel do not need to be incarcerated.

As recently as February, Knight expressed his reluctance to see the commission have to pay for a new detention center, which Knight estimated could cost around $125 million.

The jail has 984 beds, he said again during the board’s regular meeting on Feb. 25, though the capacity can be expanded to 1,026 with the addition of temporary beds. Yet, Knight pointed out, “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.

During that same meeting, the commission approved a couple of measures designed to keep the jail capacity at a lower level. One of them, called an Early Case Resolution Program, would target people charged with low-level felonies who have been confined in the jail. An assistant state attorney and a public defender assigned to the program would meet routinely to review new cases in an effort to pinpoint those that could be resolved more quickly, county staff explained.

The members of the county’s Criminal Justice Commission reported that they anticipated 600 participants would be served in the first year, with cases being closed in 30 or fewer days, on average.

The commission authorized that program to begin with the Oct. 1 start of the 2020 fiscal year, with an annual expense projected at $297,684. The funding would be split evenly between the Public Defender’s Office and the State Attorney’s Office.

However, that program may not be necessary after all, potentially saving the county close to $300,000 in a fiscal year when state revenue sharing is expected to be significantly reduced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This graphic offers details about the expected expenses of the Early Case Resolution Program. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In fact, as Larry Eger, the public defender for the 12th Judicial Circuit pointed out during his July 1 budget presentation to the commission, changes that have taken place because of the pandemic have illustrated the potential for halting the program before it begins.

“I was elected 12 years ago,” Eger said. The constant theme with which he and others in the criminal justice system have had to contend, he continued, has been “the overcrowded jail.”

Yet, he added, because of the pandemic, “I feel like, in the past four months, all of my suggestions have been implemented [to reduce the jail population].”

“For the first time,” he said, the number of inmates has been hovering around 800 per day, a decrease of approximately 20%.

In response to a Sarasota News Leader request this week, Doug Johnson, creative communications specialist for the Sheriff’s Office, provided the jail population for each day from July 29 through Aug. 11. The lowest number in the list was 819 on July 29; the highest, 835, on Aug. 1 and Aug. 2.

On Aug. 11, the total was 823.

This is the jail population for each day from July 29 through Aug. 11. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

A transformation in law enforcement responses

Eager told the commissioners he had been attending first appearances for arrestees on a routine basis, watching exchanges between attorneys for the state and those for the defendants.

Prior to the start of the public health crisis, he said, it was typical for 26 to 36 people to have their first appearances on a given day. Since the pandemic began, he added, that number has fallen to as low as six per day.

He recently called Sarasota Police Chief Bernadette DiPino, he said, to compliment her on the policy changes she had implemented that were contributing to that decrease.

Moreover, Eger told the commissioners, “As I see it in Sarasota County, there’s nobody who’s walking the streets feeling insecure or that public safety has been compromised,” even with the much lower rate of arrests.

This graphic compares incarceration rates and jail capacity of Sarasota County and counties of comparable size. Sheriff Tom Knight presented it to the County Commission on Feb. 25. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

Therefore, he admitted to “feeling a little self-righteous right now.” Ideas he proposed years ago, which were summarily dismissed, he said, apparently have been put into action. For example, he pointed out, more than a few arrests in the past resulted from civil traffic infractions that escalated “into major events.” For another example, he noted, people often were arrested following what he called “pretext stops,” situations when law enforcement officers suspected persons had committed crimes but had no evidence at the outset that that was true.

“So somehow, we have survived quite nicely,” Eger added, stressing that he did not believe the pandemic should be used as an excuse for the lower crime numbers in the county. “I don’t think that crime takes a holiday.”

“Empirically, we have seen a dramatic drop in the jail population,” he continued, “and we have seen no corresponding spike in crime.”

His suggestion, Eger said, is for leaders of the various law enforcement agencies to talk with representatives of the criminal justice programs to discuss measures taken during the public health crisis and how those could implemented “on a permanent basis.”

These are the members of the county’s Criminal Justice Commission (CJC), as noted during the Feb. 25 County Commission meeting. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Summing up his points, Eger told the commissioners that even without the implementation of the Early Release Program, “We have succeeded [in lowering the jail population].”

Commissioner Nancy Detert referenced discussions she had had with Eger over the years, during which he had talked about low-level offenders having difficulty making bond to get out of jail as they awaited trial. “You kind of sit there a lot longer than you needed to sit there,” she said of such inmates. “I hope that’s one of the other problems that’s been resolved [with the recent changes].”

“Absolutely!” Eger replied.

People are being released much more often on a pre-trial basis, he added, and more Notices to Appear in court are being issued, in lieu of arrests.

This is part of Rule 3.125 of the Florida Rules of Administrative Procedure. Image courtesy State of Florida

Typically, he continued, 70% of the persons in jail are waiting for the disposition of their cases.

A similar view

Following Eger’s presentation, State Attorney Ed Brodsky took his turn at the table in front of the board members in the Commission Chambers on July 1. He said he had not been able to hear Eger’s remarks, as county staff had been taking social distancing precautions during the workshop.

State Attorney Ed Brodsky of the 12th Judicial Circuit. Image from the 12th Judicial Circuit website

Then Brodsky told the commission he was not certain that the Early Release Program could begin on Oct. 1, given the COVID-19 pandemic’s disruptions to the criminal justice system. More likely, he added, the program could get underway in the spring of 2021.

Commissioner Charles Hines brought up Eger’s remarks, noting that Eger felt the program might not be needed after all.

The Criminal Justice Commission, Hines said, “can take a look at what’s occurred in the jail …”

Even if the conclusion were reached that the program should proceed, Hines added, it might be able to function with less funding, given less need.

“I think those are all points well made … by Mr. Eger,” Brodsky replied. “COVID-19 has actually given everyone a new perspective on the way things are done. … Right now, our numbers are good.”

Court Administration representatives and he and his staff would be working with Eger, Brodsky added. Perhaps those discussions could take place in September, he continued, to determine whether the Early Case Resolution Program should be put on hold.