Task force to work on alternatives to jailing people arrested on low-level felony convictions, especially those suffering with addiction

County Commission calls for report within 90 days as key step in effort to prevent need for new jail

A graph shows the trends in felony and misdemeanor arrests in Sarasota County. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

In his second appearance in seven weeks to discuss the issue with the Sarasota County Commission, Sheriff Tom Knight offered hope this week that the board would be able to “bring everybody to the table” in an effort to find alternatives to incarcerating low-level felony offenders, especially those suffering with drug addiction.

Knight pointed out that the alternative is constructing a new jail — at an estimated cost of $101 million — or adding to the three existing facilities that comprise the county Detention Center in downtown Sarasota. He noted that the expense of a new jail has risen from about $83 million in 2008.

Knight added that he and his staff believe they and the board have “a window of opportunity of two to three years” to counter the rise in the jail population.

In response to the Nov. 28 presentation by Knight and members of his senior staff, Commissioner Nancy Detert made a motion to direct county staff to collaborate with the sheriff “to bring all interested parties together to work on the issue of preventing incarceration.”

She asked that that group include representatives from First Step, which provides addiction recovery services. Other commissioners mentioned leaders from the State Attorney’s and Public Defender’s offices, as well as staff of Court Administration for the 12th Judicial Circuit Court.

Furthermore, Detert called for the group to report back to the County Commission within 90 days.

The motion passed unanimously.

After Knight spoke with the commissioners during their Oct. 10 regular meeting, they asked him and members of his staff to meet with them one-on-one and then return for another public session to try to decide how best to proceed in controlling the rising jail population.

A graphic shows the climb in the number of people jailed prior to felony trials and for violation of probation (VOP). Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

On Nov. 28, Knight reminded the board that he does not want the county to face a lawsuit because of overcrowding at the jail, and he does not want the facility to lose its accreditation.

Once again, Knight and Major Jeff Bell, who heads up the Sheriff’s Office’s Courts and Corrections Division, showed the commissioners slides to illustrate the situation. In October, Bell explained that although the jail has a capacity of 1,020, because of certain demands — such as the necessity of confining juveniles away from adults — the operational capacity is 867. On Oct. 10, Bell reported that the population was 930.

Moreover, the arrest rates thus far in 2017 have put felony incarcerations at 49%, ahead of misdemeanors, at 47%, according to statistics Bell showed the board. Overall, 69% of those in the jail represent felonies, compared to 28% for misdemeanors, a slide pointed out.

“I would attribute a lot of that to the opioid epidemic,” Knight said of the increase in felony arrests.

Commissioner Detert noted the average time between booking and sentencing is 77 days for people arrested on misdemeanor charges and 128 days for those brought in on felony charges.

“They’re just not making bond,” Knight replied, referring to the people charged with felonies.

A graphic shows statistics about the jail population. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

When Detert asked whether the 12th Judicial Circuit Court needs more judges, Bell told her the difference in the timelines “could be largely influenced by the docket” — just the effort to get cases heard. “Obviously, there are a lot more opportunities to settle misdemeanor cases.”

Col. Kurt Hoffman, Knight’s chief deputy, also pointed out, “The plea rate is higher” with misdemeanors.

Bell further clarified, “That doesn’t mean they’re sitting in jail.” The figures just represent the average length of time to dispose of felony cases and misdemeanor cases, Bell said.

“Do we need more judges?” Knight responded. “I don’t really know.” That would be a matter left to Court Administration, he added.

The need for strategies

The Sheriff’s Office’s primary interest in bringing up the issue to the board, Bell continued, is to find ways “we can safely reduce our jail population. … We need your influence to govern it … and also to influence the other stakeholders to all come together to buy into the philosophy of what we can do to be more effective and more efficient.”

Noting that he has been in law enforcement 31 years, Knight added, “We don’t like to get stuck at [the Sheriff’s Office] doing the same thing over and over again. That’s the definition of insanity.”

“Thanks for coming to us for a second time,” Commissioner Charles Hines said. “I hope you don’t hit us over the head a third time.”

A graphic compares the jail population in Sarasota County to the figure for other counties. Image courtesy Sheriff’s Office

The commission needs to get judges and representatives from the State Attorney’s and Public Defender’s offices “in one room,” Hines continued, so the board can learn what their various concerns are. Focus especially should be put on ways to keep drug addicts out of jail, he added.

Agencies that provide mental health services need to be involved in the discussions as well, Bell said.

“Let’s be quite honest,” Hines pointed out. “We’re talking about money. These programs aren’t free, but they’ll be cheaper than a $101-million jail.”

Bell added that he had spoken with a representative of the State Attorney’s Office since Oct. 10. “I know what their concerns are.”

The Public Defender’s Office is on board with the need for alternatives to keeping out of jail the increasing number of people arrested for drug-related charges, Bell added.

Several judges in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court have worked for years with the Sheriff’s Office on a variety of jail-diversion programs for people arrested on misdemeanor charges, Bell continued.

A graphic shows population trends for the Sarasota County Jail. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

“The majority of these judges all have seemed to favor alternatives. But a lot of people don’t want to put their head out on the chopping block,” Bell told the commissioners.

It would behoove the board, he added, to look at opportunities for new programs. “I think that support is there,” he said, but someone needs to spearhead and coordinate the effort.

“What I’m hearing from you is a more caring approach to people who have problems,” Detert responded.

“We’re having a budget blip,” she added, “but those things come and go.” Paying for alternatives to incarceration would be less expensive than building a new jail, she said, concurring with Hines’ earlier remark.

“What we seem to be looking at is an administrative issue that’s intergovernmental,” Chair Paul Caragiulo said. “This is nobody’s individual problem.”

If Knight and his senior staff could trade places with the commissioners, Caragiulo continued, how would they proceed?

Knight replied that about 10 years ago, the county hired Wayne Applebee to work on criminal justice system issues. Before Applebee was made director of services to the homeless a few years ago, Knight noted, Applebee undertook a lot of research that proved beneficial. “He understands jails.”

Knight added, “I just think that we need to go ahead and pull the trigger and start a work group …”

“I think we should probably lose no time [directing county administrative staff] to do precisely that,” Caragiulo replied. “Really, nothing works like getting everybody in a room and not letting anybody out until we figure something out.”