Sheriff and county commissioners agree on desire to avoid constructing new jail at $103-million expense

Tom Knight reports on continuing climb in jail population

The Sheriff’s Office has had to purchase mattresses this year to contend with overcrowding in the jail. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

Almost exactly a year after he broached the issue of the rising jail population and his desire to avoid constructing a new correctional facility, Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight was back before the County Commission this week with more concern.

On Oct. 10, 2017, Knight said, the jail population was 930; on Oct. 10 of this year, the figure stood at 1,042, “a 12% increase in one year.”

In October, he continued, staff recorded eight days of inmate counts when the jail was physically over its operational capacity. That capacity is 867, he explained, because of a variety of factors with which his staff must contend — from separation of males and females to separation of juveniles from adults to needs of transgender inmates.

Yet, Knight told the board, “I don’t think the community wants to build a new jail; I don’t think that this commission wants to build a jail.”

He estimated the cost of a new facility at $103 million, just $3 million higher than the figure Chief Judge Charles Williams of the 12th Judicial Circuit Court cited in a discussion with the board on Aug. 22.

“You shouldn’t feel bad about providing us with issues or information,” Commissioner Charles Hines told Knight. “It is what it is.”

Nonetheless, Hines continued, the concern about the jail population is not something the board can ignore much longer. If jail diversion strategies the commissioners approved earlier this year do not ameliorate the situation, Hines added, the board will have to address expanding the jail or constructing a new one, and the board cannot wait a long time to make such a decision. “This is not a five-year-plan.”

Hines added, “We need to give [the new jail diversion] programs a little bit of time to see if they work,” but not a year or two.

Commissioner Alan Maio pointed out that it would take time to design a new jail, settle on the site and then construct it. “There’s years— years and years — once we make the decision.

These are among the jail diversion strategies underway in the county. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Maio suggested that early in their budget process for the 2020 fiscal year, the commissioners talk again with State Attorney Ed Brodsky and Public Defender Larry Eger of the 12th Judicial Circuit, plus Chief Judge Williams, as they did in August.

Hines responded that it might be better to have staff set up a workshop outside the budget discussions, just to address the jail issues. If the board ultimately has to make the decision to construct a new jail, Hines pointed out, it will have to make certain the public has had the opportunity to understand the gravity of the situation.

Dealing with the jail population

This chart provides a breakdown of the inmate population in the jail for one week. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

The Sarasota County Jail is “one of the top-rated jails in the state,” Knight pointed out during his Oct. 23 presentation. It won reaccreditation in August, earning recognition for 100% compliance with standards.

In fact, Knight said, in 1996, the Sarasota County jail was the first in the state to be accredited by the organization that handled the process at that time.

However, he continued, during the most recent inspection, conducted in accord with the Florida Model Jail Standards (FMJS), some violations were noted; all were “directly related to the population of the jail.” (The Florida Sheriffs Association and the Florida Association of Counties appoint representatives to the Florida Model Jail Standards Committee, the Florida Sheriffs Association explains on its website.)

As a result of that Oct. 5 inspection, Knight had to provide a formal letter to Commission Chair Nancy Detert, outlining the issues, Knight noted. “We’re taking some actions to try to correct [those].”

His letter included a copy of the Oct. 9 report, the Florida Model Jail Standards Annual Jail Inspection. “There were no serious violations,” that report said. However, it continued, the inspectors found one inmate using a walker and another using a wheelchair in the Faith Based Dorm. When the inspectors looked at the assigned cell for those inmates, the report added, they “discovered there were no handicap accommodations in their cells.”

Second, during an examination of fire-retardant mattresses and pillows provided to some inmates, the report noted, “inspectors found several mattresses that were either cracked or torn.”

Knight explained to the commissioners on Oct. 23 that to deal with the jail overcrowding, since August, his department has ordered 1,200 new mattresses, at a cost of $55,000.

The FMJS report did point out that the inspectors “shared [with senior Sheriff’s Office staff] their individual findings/experiences that were earmarked with positive remarks noting cleanliness of facility, professionalism of staff and an overall impressive operation that they observed.”

This graph shows the trend in arrests over the past several years. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

Showing the commissioners a slide on Oct. 23, Knight pointed out that the number of arrests in the county fell from 15,987 in 2012 to 10,963 in 2016. Last year, however, the number rose again, to 11,324. So far this year, he said, it is 7,855.

“We’ve seen a significant drop in arrests,” he said, “and we have lower crime.”

The bigger issue, Knight continued, is that, year-to-date, his staff has recorded “the sharpest percent increase we’ve seen [in the jail population] since my time as sheriff.”

Knight first was elected in 2008.

The number of inmates with felony charges has continued to climb, he pointed out. Last year, 69% of the jail population was incarcerated because of felony charges, a slide showed; so far this year, the felony figure is 79%. Moreover, Knight emphasized, the average length of sentence is higher for felony convictions. In 2017, it was 103 days, compared to 32 for people charged with misdemeanors. This year, the average length of sentence for people jailed on felonies has been 249, compared to 86 days for those jailed on misdemeanor charges.

As he noted last year, Knight said again this week that the number of people jailed for third-degree felonies — the lowest level of the more serious types of crime — continues to rise.

Sheriff’s Office actions and other strategies

A graph shows the trends in the jail population. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

“We’re doing everything that we can,” Knight said, to keep from arresting people.

For example, he said, the Sheriff’s Office’s Law Enforcement Division issued 400 Notices to Appear [NTA] in 2017 and has issued about 350 thus far this year. “We’ve done all the NTAs we can do as an agency.” Those citations call for a person to appear in court on a specific date, in lieu of arrest.

Knight reminded the commissioners that, in late November 2017, they approved the establishment of a work group to discuss and settle on jail diversion strategies to try to reduce the jail population. Among those strategies the board approved, he added, was a Violation of Probation (VOP) Court. It held its first session on Oct. 18, Knight noted, during which 21 cases were on the docket. Of those, he said, 16 were heard, with seven resolved. Four people were sentenced to the county jail, one was sentenced to the Florida Department of Corrections and two were released.

The VOP Court, State Attorney Brodsky explained in August, will conduct hearings on a daily basis, with the hope that more people can be released more quickly from jail.

Without the implementation of the VOP, Knight said, those cases heard on Oct. 18 would not have been scheduled until November.

Additionally, Knight noted, “We did open up a couple more recovery pods in the jail.” The goal with that action, he continued, is to help drug addicts recover, so they can become productive citizens upon release.

The jail has a total of four separate housing units “to address addiction recovery for males and females,” as well as mental illness issues, one of Knight’s slides said.

Rising costs with rising jail population

A chart provides information about the jail’s inmates. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

While he was addressing his concerns about the rising number of inmates, Knight told the commissioners he wanted to take time to provide some details, too, about the impacts of the situation on his budget.

For example, he said, the Sheriff’s Office has experienced “a drastic increase” in its costs for off-site medical attention and prescriptions.

A slide showed the off-site expenses are expected to rise from $866,000 in 2017 to approximately $1,050,000 in 2019. Pharmacy costs totaled $456,000 in 2016; they are expected to reach the $800,000 level in 2019.

When an inmate has to be transported to Sarasota Memorial Hospital, Knight explained, a deputy has to stay with the person 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

His staff just went through a long process, he said, to procure a new contract for medical services. As part of that contract, he added, the company can re-address its payments if the jail records more than 1,100 inmates for three consecutive months.

Furthermore, Knight said, an extra 100 people in the jail raises food costs by more than $100,000.