Rising jail population to be one focus of Sheriff’s Office discussion with the County Commission on Oct. 10

Sheriff Tom Knight has expressed worries about dealing with more inmates than the jail is capable of handling

The Sarasota County Detention Center is in downtown Sarasota. File photo

With no millage rate increase and the majority of the Sarasota County commissioners declining to implement an excise tax on certain utilities, the board members will be facing difficult decisions in coming months as they try to meet the county’s financial demands, they agreed this week.

The $4 million-and-climbing expenses linked to Hurricane Irma are but one factor unaccounted for in the 2018 fiscal year budget the board approved on a 4-1 vote on Sept. 26. (See the related story in this issue.)

As Deputy County Administrator and Chief Financial Management Officer Steve Botelho pointed out to them during their final budget on Sept. 26, they also will have to consider how to respond to a variety of new requests for funding.

Arguably one of the most pressing issues will be the rising jail population. In an Aug. 23 letter to Chair Paul Caragiulo, Sheriff Tom Knight explained that although “the jail population has [seemingly] become less of a priority or certainly less of a topic for discussion [over the past three years] … my staff and I have continuing concerns.

“Most recently,” Knight continued, “the jail census climbed to 981 inmates.”

Jeff Lowdermilk, now director of the county’s General Services Department, explained during a June 8, 2016 presentation to the County Commission that data collected by county staff projected the inmate population to exceed 867 before 2020.

Sheriff Tom Knight. Photo courtesy Sheriff’s Office

Knight continued in his letter, “I remind you that the rated capacity for the county jail (total number of actual beds) is 1021 and the operational capacity is 867. This number is derived by national standards in order to comply with inmate classification requirements.” The 867 figure represents 85% of the actual beds, he noted.

During a tour of the jail provided for members of the news media in June 2016, Sheriff’s Office personnel — including Major Jeff Bell, a 34-year department veteran who serves as the commander of courts and correctional services — explained factors staff has to deal with in regard to the inmate population. For example, juvenile offenders have to be housed separately from adults. Lt. Brian Meinberg pointed out during the day of the tour that three juveniles were occupying an 18-person cellblock.

Additionally, ongoing maintenance issues with the aging facilities often necessitate moving inmates out of areas from time to time, Bell explained.

Experts on correctional facilities have told the Sheriff’s Office staff that it needs 110,000 square feet in the jail, Bill Spitler, director of research and planning for the Sheriff’s Office, pointed out to the reporters.

However, Bell told the County Commission last year, that the three sections that comprise the Sarasota County Detention Center have 64,352 square feet.

The Sheriff’s Office’s most recent annual report says the county’s Detention Center processed 12,319 arrests in 2016, noting that the jail “is the receiving facility for all arrests by [the Sheriff’s Office], local municipal police departments, Florida Highway patrol and other state and federal agencies.”

Although he did not focus on jail operations on June 20, when he and his staff presented the department’s proposed 2018 fiscal year budget, Knight did tell the County Commission that the jail population “is filling up” primarily because of the number of people convicted of felonies.

In his Aug. 23 letter, Knight continued, “Although informal dialogues have taken place between my corrections staff and other organizations that affect the jail population, the inmate population continues to grow. My staff has continued to work all the options and opportunities that I have independently available as Sheriff, but the population continues to swell.”

He added, “It is my belief that the increased inmate population will continue to grow, causing jail overcrowding beyond the abilities of the facility.”

Knight also noted that prior to April 2013, when Wayne Applebee served as the county’s criminal justice policy coordinator, Applebee addressed issues related to the jail on a monthly basis. “He collaborated with Sheriff’s Office analysts and he was able to keep the [County Commission] apprised of jail issues.”

Applebee subsequently was named the county’s director of services for the homeless.

An aerial view shows the Detention Center on Ringling Boulevard in downtown Sarasota, Image courtesy Sheriff’s Office

In conclusion, Knight wrote, “I am providing you with this information so we can all be proactive with our collaborative approach, and would recommend I have a short meeting with the board so a direction can be initiated.”

That discussion will come on Oct. 10, Deputy Administrator Botelho told the commissioners on Sept. 26. It also will include a focus on Knight’s concerns about the proposed Quality of Life ordinance the commission will consider during a public hearing set for Oct. 11.

In an Aug. 18 letter, Knight expressed worries about the potential financial impact on his department if the commission approved new regulations designed to address homelessness in the community.

With the county having included funding in its FY18 budget for more emergency beds for homeless individuals at The Salvation Army in Sarasota, board members have talked of their desire to get the new ordinance in place to deal with homeless people and vagrants who refuse assistance and persist in sleeping out of doors or storing personal items on public property, for example.

As long as the community lacked a sufficient number of beds to deal with immediate needs for homeless individuals, staff of the Office of the County Attorney had advised against law enforcement officers arresting people for “life-sustaining” actions. That view was based on a federal court decision involving the City of Miami that said the city could not criminalize certain behaviors of homeless people if the city could not offer them alternatives, such as those afforded by an emergency shelter.