New 40-bed secured facility for treating offenders with mental health and substance abuse issues wins County Commission support on trial basis

Representatives of county’s Criminal Justice System offer full support of program expected to cost $3.8 million a year

(Editor’s note: This article was updated on Aug. 28 to provide more details about Baker Act and Marchman Act commitments.)

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

With support from the Sarasota County Criminal Justice System — including Chief Judge Kim Bonner of the 12th Judicial Circuit Court and State Attorney Ed Brodsky — the County Commission this week unanimously agreed to the establishment of a 40-bed secured residential treatment and re-entry program for criminal offenders with mental health and substance abuse issues.

The projected annual cost is $3,825,694, plus a one-time expense of $500,000 for the hardening of a facility, operated by First Step of Sarasota, where the program would be based. Chuck Henry, director of the county’s Health and Human Services Department, explained facets of the plan as he addressed the commissioners during their Aug. 21 budget workshop.

Henry added that the county’s Criminal Justice Commission (CJC) recommended a three-year pilot program for the jail diversion program. Commission Chair Charles Hines agreed that the data produced over that period would enable the board members to determine whether to continue the initiative.

Sheriff Tom Knight suggested that the commissioners ask the members of the Criminal Justice Commission to work on the criteria for “putting people into the program.”

Additionally, the motion made by Commissioner Nancy Detert called for implementation of an early case resolution program that the CJC endorsed, at an annual operating cost of $297,684.

Chuck Henry. Photo courtesy Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County

“This would really help to expedite the processing of third-degree felony cases,” Henry pointed out. It would necessitate the assignment of assistant state attorneys to review cases, he added, to determine who would be eligible for that program.

Finally, Detert’s motion called for staff to proceed with a third CJC recommendation: planning for a 200-bed secured residential treatment facility as part of the county’s formal Capital Improvement Program.

Henry said staff would begin due diligence on all three initiatives and report back to the commission in six months on the projected timelines for implementation and potential funding options.

In response to questions Detert posed during the discussion, Kim Hirsch, the county’s criminal justice policy coordinator, said, the CJC believes the residential treatment program would serve 120 people a year. “Basically, 7,200 jail days would be diverted.”

The average length of stay in the facility was estimated at 60 days, Hirsch added. Further, “We would like to see less than a 30% [rate of recidivism] in the first 12 months” for people released after treatment. She noted that the recidivism rate is 35% for people who have been in jail.

In regard to a “rate of return” for the program: Hirsch said the County Commission would be able to forgo constructing a new jail and paying for its ongoing operation; the community should realize further reduction in crime; and the Sheriff’s Office, the Sarasota County Fire Department’s EMS units and municipal police officers should see a drop in the number of service calls for Baker Act and Marchman Act transports. (The latter acts refer to involuntary commitments, provided for under the Florida Statutes, of persons who are considered dangers to themselves and others. The Baker Act involves mental illness cases; the Marchman Act, substance abuse cases.)

Moreover, Hirsch said, people leaving the residential treatment program would be more likely to be able to hold jobs and produce income for themselves, and they also would be expected to enjoy better relationships with their families.

Representing the Gulf Coast Community Foundation as its senior vice president for community development, former County Commissioner Jon Thaxton told the board members the nonprofit “is completely supportive of this initiative” and is willing to participate in funding aspects of it. Not only will the county taxpayers realize savings with the commission not having to invest in a new jail, Thaxton said, but “this is also morally the correct thing to do.”

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

In March, Sheriff Knight estimated the expense of a new jail could be as high as $130 million. Since the fall of 2018, he has appeared before the commission several times to discuss his staff’s concerns about overcrowding in the county detention center, which is in downtown Sarasota.

People suffering with mental health and substance abuse problems should not be locked up in the jail, Thaxton added on Aug. 21. That “is about as unsuccessful an approach as taking someone with emphysema or cancer and expecting the Sheriff’s Office and the Criminal Justice System to cure their illnesses, as well.”

A wealth of support

Former 12th Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Lee Haworth, who was appearing on behalf of Chief Judge Bonner, talked of “such strong support for this concept” in referring to the new treatment facility. “We get tired of doing the same thing over and over again and having bad consequences,” he said of the members of the Criminal Justice System.

“We have recognized that there are people sitting in our jail cells that don’t need to be there,” he continued, “but we have no place to put them. … We think we can make a substantial change in the way criminals are treated …”

Haworth explained that he was part of a county group that traveled to Washington County, Oregon, about 10 years ago to tour the 215-bed Community Corrections Center. He called that facility the model for the pilot program the commission was considering on Aug. 21. “They’ve anticipated every possible problem. … It has reduced recidivism.”

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

He added that former felons who completed the Oregon treatment program are paid to serve as mentors to people newly assigned to the facility. He encouraged the county commissioners to look at videos and read about the program on its website.

Haworth also noted that both State Attorney Brodsky and Public Defender Larry Eger of the 12th Judicial Circuit “agree on this [new Sarasota County initiative], which is a nice thing,” prompting laughter among the people gathered in the Think Tank at the County Administration Center in downtown Sarasota.

A page on the Community Corrections Center website provides information about whom it serves. Image from the website

Another speaker who addressed the board, David Beasley, president and CEO of First Step of Sarasota, took the opportunity to tell the commissioners that his organization is merging with Coastal Behavioral Healthcare. That process should be concluded in about a year, he added. “We will have the collective weight of both organizations, addressing substance abuse and mental health” for people diverted to the new treatment program. “We’ll bring all the resources we have to this project …”

Sheriff Knight also spoke to the commissioners, making points, as he has over the past 18 months, that law enforcement has undergone many changes since he took office in 2009. “We’re not going to use handcuffs to fix everything. We need treatment facilities.”

He stressed the significance of having Brodsky and the judges support the new jail diversion program.