Jail diversion program at First Step serving more offenders, but commissioner voices concern about recent inmate escape

First Step reviewing procedures to ensure security of facility, county staff says

Commissioner Michael Moran. File image

In late February, Sarasota County Commissioner Michael Moran voiced concerns about the small number of persons being served by a pilot jail diversion program that the board members approved about two-and-a-half years ago.

The Community Offender Rehabilitative Treatment Program (CORT) was to serve 40 people at a time in a facility on the campus of First Step of Sarasota.

The latest count he had had from staff, he said during the board’s Feb. 23 meeting, indicated that no more than 12 people had been admitted to the program.

“We have a burn rate on this of about $217,000 a month,” he stressed, as the annual operating expense for each of the three years had been put at $2,629,234, based on an updated report in February 2020.

Yet, while the number of people getting treatment through the CORT program has risen in recent weeks, Commissioner Christian Ziegler noted a new concern this week — one that board members originally voiced when they were talking with representatives of the county’s Criminal Justice System about the proposal for the initiative. That dealt with the security of the facility, which is in a building on the First Step campus that whose rehabilitation the county funded for the CORT Program.

During the board members’ reports to their colleagues on April 12, Ziegler alluded to an incident that had occurred at First Step, involving a person in the CORT program. He did not offer any details.

In response to a Sarasota News Leader question about that incident, county Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester provided the following statement from county staff on April 14:

“Sarasota County is aware of the escape of an individual who was participating in the Community Offender Rehabilitative Treatment (CORT) program, which is operated by First Step of Sarasota. The county will continue to assist law enforcement if-and-when requested in whatever capacity we can.

“In addition,” the statement said, “we understand that First Step of Sarasota is actively reviewing their processes and procedures for areas of improvement.”

Earlier, the News Leader contacted the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office about Ziegler’s remark. Community Affairs Director Kaitlyn R. Perez referred the News Leader to the county Communications Department staff for comments.

On Aug. 21, 2019, the commissioners seated serving at that time agreed unanimously to the establishment of what Sarasota County Criminal Justice System representatives called a secured residential treatment and re-entry program for criminal offenders with mental health and substance abuse issues.

This slide, shown to the commissioners in October 2020, offers details about the the planning for the pilot program that the commission approved. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the opening of the facility until November 2021. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Chuck Henry, director of the county’s Health and Human Services Department, reported that the county’s Criminal Justice Commission had recommended the three-year pilot program. Then-commission Chair Charles Hines — who had to step down in 2020 because of term limits — pointed out that the board would have data from that period to determine whether to continue the initiative after the pilot program concludes.

Kim Hirsch, the county’s criminal justice policy coordinator at the time, reported that she believed the program would serve 120 people a year. “Basically, 7,200 jail days would be diverted.”

Then-Sheriff Tom Knight had been working with the Criminal Justice Commission and the commissioners on a variety of jail-diversion program ideas because the population count in the jail routinely was bumping up against the maximum threshold for the facility to maintain its accreditation.

Former 12th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Lee Haworth, who was appearing at the Aug. 21, 2019 commission budget workshop on behalf of then-Chief Judge Kimberly Bonner, told the commissioners that he was part of a county group that had traveled to Washington County, Oregon, about 10 years earlier to tour a 215-bed Community Corrections Center. He called that a model for the pilot program being proposed in Sarasota County.

This is a view of the Community Corrections Center in Washington County, Oregon. Image from the facility website

“They’ve anticipated every possible problem,” Haworth said of the operators of the Oregon facility. “It has reduced recidivism.”

Improving CORT numbers

Following the airing of Commissioner Moran’s concerns in February about how few people the CORT Program was serving at that time, the board members asked County Administrator Jonathan Lewis to ensure that they get regular updates on the number of people in the First Step facility.

On March 13, Henry of Health and Human Services reported to the commissioners, via email, that 28 individuals were receiving treatment, and 39 were in screening for it or awaiting approval from the Criminal Justice System.

“Great work advancing CORT,” Commissioner Moran responded to Henry on March 14.

The top of the Excel spreadsheet that Henry provided the board members on March 13 noted that the First Step facility opened on Nov. 22, 2021. Further, it pointed out that the program is for male offenders incarcerated in the Sarasota County Jail. Through the CORT Program, the document added, the offenders “are released from the jail and transferred to this secured, treatment facility.”

This is the report for the CORT Program as of April 6. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On April 14, county Media Relations Officer Winchester told the News Leader that 39 of the 40 spots were filled, with one other individual awaiting transport to First Step. When that person arrived, Winchester pointed out, the program would be at capacity.

In regard to the number of persons in the jail: The latest report available prior to the publication of this issue of the News Leader showed that the total population had ranged from 939 to 967 from March 31 through April 6. The population average for the previous week was 924, the report added.

The jail’s capacity is 984.

This is the most recent jail population report available prior to the News Leader‘s deadline for this issue. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Although the numbers had improved, on April 12, Commissioner Moran indicated his desire to talk with members of the Criminal Justice Commission (CJC) about the CORT Program.

Since Commissioner Ziegler is the commission’s representative on the CJC, Moran said that he had been advised by the Office of the County Attorney that, in keeping with the state’s open meetings laws, Ziegler would have to leave the room while Moran engaged State Attorney Ed Brodsky of the 12th Judicial District, and Larry Eger, the public defender for the 12th District, as well as Sheriff Kurt Hoffman, in a discussion.

However, the Office of the County Attorney had advised him that he could attend the upcoming meeting on April 25 in Ziegler’s place.

Ziegler agreed to let Moran attend that April 25 meeting.

Moran also is serving as a representative of the County Commission on the First Step board of directors, as First Step is one of the top recipients of county funding for the treatment of mental health and substance abuse services.

These are the directors of First Step of Sarasota. Image from the nonprofit’s website