Jail crisis puts county in political dilemma
By Jack Gurney
Faced with jam-packed jail cells and no political commitment to provide more, Sarasota County officials have swallowed hard and asked the state for relief from a "zero tolerance" policy on the arrest and incarceration of probation violators.
On Nov. 14, Commission Chair Nora Patterson signed a letter to Florida Department of Corrections Secretary James R. McDonough that asks him "reconsider" the state's get-tough approach on violators by allowing local judges to deal with them on a "case-by-case" basis.
The letter reflects an Oct. 10 commission decision to temporarily reduce the daily jail population of more than 1,000 inmates, while it begins to consider Sheriff Bill Balkwill's request for a new facility where sentenced inmates could serve out their terms.
In her one-page letter, Patterson suggests that almost 15 percent of the jail population - a daily average of 156 inmates - are parole violators who individually cost county taxpayers $58 a day to house. She provided a list of county initiatives to ease overcrowding.
"The county has also started the process of planning the next jail to keep up with the impact of population growth," she stated. "However, all of these efforts are seemingly meaningless in the face of state policies that create a significantly large burden on the jail population."
So far, the only steps taken to provide more cells have been a couple of internal meetings and the employment of an outside consultant. There has been no commitment to provide more jail capacity or build the new facility Balkwill has requested.
On Dec. 4, the first serious consideration of a new medium-security facility for sentenced prisoners could begin to unfold at a Criminal Justice Coordinating Council meeting, where county and sheriff's officials will directly address the proposal.
Meanwhile, the commission's request for local relief from the state's "zero tolerance" policy on parole violators appears to fly in the face of public outrage after the 2004 kidnap, rape and murder of 11-year-old Carlie Brucia by Joseph Smith, a parole violator.
Television talk show host Bill O'Reilly seized on the Sarasota tragedy to vilify former Circuit Judge Harry Rapkin in a series of broadcasts for not ordering Smith's immediate arrest and incarceration. Rapkin did not seek reappointment to the bench.
Commissioner Shannon Staub raised the subject of jail overcrowding on Oct. 10 and discussed programs to empty cells that have worked in other communities. County Administrator Jim Ley suggested options such as mental health programs and agreed to provide alternatives.
The state's get-tough policy was established in 2003 by former Department Secretary James Crosby and reaffirmed this spring by his successor, McDonough, in a letter to field staff employees that stated, "I have reviewed this policy and am in full support."
While the state's policy predated the death of Brucia in 2004, and the murder of 9-year-old Citrus County resident Jessica Lunsford a year later, it became a focal point for shocked residents who demanded that parole violators be removed from the streets.
As a result, state probation officers have strictly enforced the policy and issued arrest warrants for violators. The ultimate disposition of such cases is still a circuit court responsibility, wherein judges must decide whether to warn or incarcerate offenders.
Earlier this year, Balkwill requested a new mid-county booking facility for arrests, and a new jail outside the city for 200 to 300 sentenced prisoners. The problem is where to locate the structure without stirring up a political hornet's nest with area residents.
In 1998, the county commission considered potential locations outside the city, listened to complaints from Laurel area residents who felt threatened by a new jail facility at the landfill, and finally agreed to a 329-bed downtown jail addition.