Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Why we should exercise common sense in our jail system:

A cautionary tale from New Mexico.

I recently toured the still almost-new Bernalillo County Detention Center (BCDC). It was opened about three years ago and this year saw a new psychiatric wing completed, making its total capacity more than 2,500 inmates.
BCDC was built because the old County Jail Downtown (capacity 1,500) was chronically overfilled and showing signs of age. A Federal Court Consent Decree meant that the city and county had to do something to either increase capacity or reduce census as the overcrowded conditions there were hazardous and comprised cruel and unusual punishment.
The county financed construction of a $45 million jail built 15 miles west of Downtown, out by the solid waste landfill at Cerro Colorado. Initially, the city ran the new BCDC (as it had the old jail) but this past year it turned the facility over to the county to operate.
Our two local governmental bodies continue to bicker over the jail and how it's financed. That would make a good topic for another column, perhaps, but what is of interest to me right now is how BCDC typifies a fundamental dilemma facing our entire society, one we'd better resolve quickly.
What goes on in our jails demonstrates clearly that our uncertainty about how best to deal with crime produces policies and expenditures that actually get in the way of accomplishing our most basic goals of protection and safety.
To put it another way, we seem hell-bent on locking up criminals—even though locking them up frequently is neither a deterrent nor a corrective to criminal acts. We are foolishly spending millions of dollars in completely ineffective ways, ways that are moving us into and not away from a more dangerous society.
BCDC is already bursting at the seams. Not to worry: We have blueprints prepared in advance for doubling its capacity. Once the county’s bonding capacity is available again, we could expand it to handle a total confined population of 5,000!
Of course, we would have to stop almost all other county services to accommodate the effects on the budget of hiring hundreds of new prison guards (if we could find them). Meanwhile, funding the courts, law enforcement and social services caused by jailing so many people would soak up whatever pennies remained after the cost of housing, feeding and guarding the expanded pool of criminals is met.
It’s a steep downward spiral. It wouldn’t take very long for that course of action to either bankrupt the county or to elbow almost every other form of governmental service out of existence.
Libraries? Museums? Health clinics? Community Centers? Educational supports? Affordable housing? All would have to be viewed as luxuries in the face of the voracious appetite for public money that this warehousing of criminals requires. And with each erasure from existence of those quality of life components, our community will become a less attractive place to live and one more likely to spawn more criminals.
The current administration at BCDC recognizes this is not an approach that will work. The philosophy has shifted noticeably since the facility was transferred to the county’s responsibility. Now the effort is being made to find ways to actually reduce the numbers being held. Efforts to promote diversion, alternative punishment, early release, education and substance abuse treatment are underway and will have a beneficial effect in time.
Amazing! For years I naively imagined that was always the goal of corrections. Yet our state prison system still seems to be operating with the polar opposite philosophy: Keep ’em behind walls as long as possible, forget about rehabilitation efforts and hang the expense! This year we are treated to the spectacle of state government creating three new adult prisons—and promising to find ways to fill them all.
This is nuts.
Worse, it doesn’t even keep us safe … neither now nor in the future.
We know that men and women who don’t have at least a high school diploma will have a very hard time staying out of jail during their lives. There simply aren’t many legal ways to make enough money to survive with that kind of educational deficit dragging you down.
This would seem to make it imperative that while we have people locked up behind bars in our prisons we would be using that time to educate them. Literacy, GEDs, high school diplomas, vocational programs and even college courses ought to be made available. Participating in educational programs could be a way to earn good time. It would be a motivator for cooperating and staying out of trouble.
We also, curiously, follow practices that systematically destroy family supports for the confined inmates. When they get out it will be a lot easier to stay out of trouble if they have a network of caring and assistance from their families—but that requires visitation policies far different from those we follow.
We are not doing a good job of turning offenders’ lives around while they are incarcerated. Other states have far surpassed us in their efforts to rehabilitate. The irony is that getting serious about rehabilitation would not cost more money than what we are doing now; it would wind up being less expensive.
We aren’t a wealthy enough state to throw good money after bad the way we do in our prison system. BCDC’s administrators understand this and are working to change. What will it take for the message to get through to the state corrections people?

By Jerry Ortiz y Pino

Monday, January 29, 2007

A new jail for Sarasota County? Part 4

Sarasota County commissioners will wait for more information before spending thousands on a new detention facility.

The commissioners unanimously decided Tuesday to table the decision to grant a $209,100 contract with Liebert and Associates for planning and design consulting. The firm previously worked on several improvements to the current county jail.

The commissioners felt that a new jail may not be immediately necessary.

"We've invested a fair amount of dollars and are continuing to do so on jail diversionary programs," said Commission Chair Nora Patterson. "We did that based on the concept that it was a whole lot cheaper and logical to do something more productive to positively influence people's lives, rather than sticking them in jail."

"I don't know anything about the Liebert firm at all," said Commissioner Joe Barbetta.

He pointed out that other counties utilized a "renowned" consulting firm from Kansas City called Justice Concepts, which was not on the bid list.

Commissioner Shannon Staub voiced reservations of her own, based on the fact that she and her colleagues had not received minutes from the criminal justice commission.

"We're sort of out of the loop totally, as far as I'm concerned," Staub said.

She supported Commissioner Paul Mercier's earlier suggestion that instead of building a new jail of its own, the county might explore combining its resources with other counties on a jointly run facility.

"We have had informal discussions with two of our surrounding counties, one of whom (DeSoto County) is actually beginning the jail-siting process right now," said Assistant County Administrator David Bullock. "I can tell you this. There is interest in that county (for) some combined (effort)."

"I'd like to get an analysis of what type of jail we need," Patterson said.

"This is a first step in a long process," said James Schulz, criminal justice policy coordinator. "We're bringing in somebody to help us answer these questions. Internally, we have some of these ideas. We do not have a place in mind inside or outside the boundaries of the county. That's why, from lessons learned in the past, we are bringing in someone early in the process."

"This is a monumental decision and I don't want to see a split vote," said Commissioner Jon Thaxton. "And I'm uncomfortable with the hesitation I hear from my colleagues, whose opinions I trust."

Thaxton proposed postponing action on the consulting contract in order for staff to explore other options. Patterson then proposed four things staff should consider:

* How a regional jail might come about through cooperation with other counties.

* How the existing facility can be better utilized.

* What type of facility is required.

* Whether the public wants it.

"If it's within shooting distance of Sarasota County, we need a public demonstration that a facility is needed," Patterson said.

By Steven J. Smith

Staff Writer Sun Newspapers

Friday, January 26, 2007

Our Justice System Has Gone Mad:

Every year, American taxpayers fund an estimated $60 billion for our incarceration system. This system staples together a network of public and corporate-run jails, prisons, pre- and post-release centers, juvenile detention centers and boot camps. All together, these facilities hold well over two million human beings, locked away without public oversight or scrutiny.

Yet throwing money at the perceived scourge of criminality in the United States doesn't appear to have had the desired effect: Despite the staggering incarceration statistics, violent crime has actually begun to creep up over the last two years, according to the latest FBI Uniform Crime Report.

In the last several years, some signs have emerged of an increasingly organized movement of citizens, family members of the incarcerated, independent-minded judges and correctional or criminal justice experts -- who stand in firm opposition to our punitive, nonrehabilitative incarceration system.

Viewed through an optimistic lens, the United States might genuinely be at the beginning of a trend toward real criminal justice reform. Meanwhile, millions of Americans have already paid far too high a price for shortsighted penological policies. Floridian Yraida Guanipa is among them.

Guanipa spent the last ten and a half years locked in federal penitentiaries in Florida, locked away from her Miami community, her extended family and two young boys.

Her offense: She agreed to pick up a sealed package for a friend, which turned out to contain cocaine. Although Guanipa had never been arrested before -- and had never been a drug user -- she was hit with a thirteen-year "drug conspiracy" prison sentence on par with a sentence that a major drug trafficker would have received. Guanipa's good standing in the community, her lack of criminal background and the fact that she had a 1-year-old and a 2-year old had no impact on her sentence.

The story has become sadly familiar to me, particularly as I have spent the last few years corresponding with, meeting and interviewing women like Guanipa in jails and prisons across the country.

In the decade of her imprisonment, Guanipa witnessed two suicides; countless incidents of medical negligence; the brutality of prison retaliation; and the everyday reality of sexual relations between male guards and female inmates.

Guanipa became an outspoken advocate for other prisoners as a self-educated jailhouse lawyer, but most prisoners talk about retreating within themselves to try to survive the ordeal. Concern for collective well-being is difficult, if not impossible, when individual survival is on the line.

"Unfortunately, that's what prison does to us," Guanipa explains. "It takes the human feelings out of our body, and we just try to survive."

Tasteless films like Let's Go to Prison notwithstanding, what really goes on in prisons is still a mystery to most Americans, as are the immeasurable collateral consequences of incarceration on families and communities. Arrest and incarceration are woven into the fabric of American life: Today, a black man has one chance in three of ending up in prison at some point in his life, and is more likely to go to prison than to graduate from college.

According to the latest statistics from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the US prison and jail population hit a new high of 2,193,798 men and women at the end of 2005, representing a 2.7 percent increase over the previous year. A record number of more than 200,000 women are now doing time behind bars -- an estimated 80 percent of whom are mothers. Analysis by the Women's Prison Association has shown that female incarceration has jumped 757 percent since 1977.

More than 95,000 juveniles are also in custody, held in the kinds of facilities that only seem to make their lives more troubled than they were to begin with. As one 14-year-old girl put it to me in Seattle's King County Juvenile Detention Center, "This place just teaches us to be better criminals. It's like a criminal training school."

One in thirty-two US adults are now under some form of correctional supervision. Although Americans only constitute 5 percent of the world's population, one-quarter of the entire world's inmates are contained in our jails and prisons, something that baffles other democratic societies that have typically used prisons as a measure of last resort, especially for nonviolent offenders.

But mass incarceration in America remains a nonissue, largely because of a lack of any serious or effective discourse on the part of our political leaders. At most, election season brings out the kinds of get-tough-on-crime platforms that have already given us misguided Three Strikes and mandatory-minimum sentencing laws.

But there are now a few signs that today's insatiable carceral state might eventually find it harder to find bodies to fill our already dramatically overcrowded facilities. In December, 2006, a federal judge gave Republican Governor Schwarzenegger until June 2007 to devise a real plan to relieve severe overcrowding in California's thirty-three prisons. Designed to hold no more than 81,000 men and women, California's state prison system is overflowing with more than 173,000 inmates who are often crammed in eight-person cells or can be found sleeping on packed-to-capacity gym floors.

A New Year's weekend riot at a Chino State Prison involved hundreds of inmates and sent more than two dozen to the hospital. Schwarzenegger has already authorized shipment of California inmates to private prisons in other states as well as more money for building new prisons. Thankfully, this approach has failed to pass muster with the federal court that could step in to order early release of prisoners unless more productive solutions are found to further alleviate overcrowding.

"I think the climate [for reform] has opened up," says Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based advocacy organization. "The issue is less emotional and politicized right now. "

Part of the reason for the slight climate shift has to do with the fact that taxpayers are growing increasingly tired of throwing money into fiscal sinkhole of multibillion-dollar corrections budgets. (California's corrections budget is a whopping $8.75 billion, yet two-thirds of prisoners still end up back in prison.) And then there is the fact that adult and juvenile violent crime rates have, until recently, been on an overall decline since 1993, and the hysteria generated by the crack cocaine epidemic has finally died down to a dull ebb.

As the public has slowly gained an understanding of serious drug abuse as a health and addiction issue, millions of American voters have signaled their own dissatisfaction with the one-size-fits-all-punishment model, voting for treatment diversion programs in a number of states, including the highly successful Proposition 36 in California.

Civil rights/liberties organizations ranging from the ACLU to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (the organization was instrumental in reversing convictions resulting from the Tulia, Texas, drug round-ups of primarily black citizens based on the uncorroborated accusations of one police officer), have made it clear that the grossly disproportionate incarceration of people of color and poor people should be an urgent, front-burner issue for the country as a whole.

In December, 2006, the subject of what it might take to dismantle the American carceral system brought some 500 attendees to New York City. The conference, "Punishment: The U.S. Record," was organized by The New School for Social Research. The event brought together the likes of renowned Princeton sociologist Bruce Western, US District Court Judge Nancy Gertner and Stephen Bright, president and senior counsel of the Southern Center for Human Rights, in a unified call for radical, systemic change in the criminal justice system.

From Judge Gertner's perspective, this change necessitates a "re-education" of the judiciary, reclaiming their independence in a criminal justice system that has favored strict guidelines over judicial discretion -- especially in drug cases -- since the passage of the Reagan-era Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986, the law that established the 100-to-one crack-to-powder cocaine sentencing disparity.

With a new Democratic majority in Congress, a number of pending bills do seek to right some of the legislative wrongs of the past. Democratic Representative Charles Rangel has introduced HR 2456, the Crack -Cocaine Equitable Sentencing Act, introduced in 2005 and still in committee, which would equalize the drug-quantity ratio and eliminate the mandatory minimum for simple possession. Even some conservatives have moved forward on criminal justice reform. Republican Senator Jeff Sessions's S 3725, the Drug Sentencing Reform Act, introduced in 2006, would reduce the drug quantity ratio to a twenty-to-one disparity and mandatory sentence for simple possession to one year.

Marie Gottschalk, author of The Prison and the Gallows: The Politics of Mass Incarceration in America, cautioned progressives to remember that most political leaders have been slow to enact any significant reforms for fear of seeming weak on public safety issues. In some cases, she said, some of the most regressive legislation and leaps in incarceration numbers have actually occurred under Democratic stewardship, as was the case under former California Governor Gray Davis (with his unapologetically strong allegiance to the state's prison guard union, CCPOA) and President Clinton's signing of the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act, which severely limited legal recourse for prisoners to appeal and their ability to plead for relief for abuses suffered while incarcerated.

While many people working in corrections take their jobs seriously, abusive or negligent behavior is a fact of prison life, as are sexual exploitation and violence, the use of restraint chairs, and chemical and electric weapons. Racism and race-based housing has contributed to major prison riots; extended use of supermax-style isolation cells; and shoddy and/or life-threatening medical care are all common problems. Add to this the fact that more than half of all prison and jail inmates report struggling with mild to severe mental-health problems, whose periods of incarceration only tend to exacerbate pre-existing problems.

Back at FCI Coleman in Central Florida, the relief that accompanied Guanipa's move to a halfway house last month -- and her eventual release to the "free world" six months from now -- is tempered by the knowledge of those she's leaving behind to face the day-to-day struggles of prison life.

"The hardships we endure here will be part of our lives when we are released," she says.

By Silja J.A. Talvi, The Nation
Posted on January 26, 2007, Printed on January 26, 2007

Thursday, January 25, 2007

A new jail for Sarasota County ? Part 3

One of the most onerous tasks a community faces is building a new jail because nobody wants one near them. Sarasota County flailed about with just such an undertaking nine years ago, and doesn't want to make the same mistakes again.

On Tuesday, the county commission balked when asked to approve more than $200,000 for a jail consultant's advice, but agreed to revisit the issue as part of a larger discussion that includes the possibility of a regional facility for sentenced prisoners.

"I have no problem with approving the contract," Commissioner Paul Mercier said, "but why not have conversations with DeSoto County and Manatee County about a joint site? I'd like to see the contract expanded to consider three counties."

Sheriff Bill Balkwill recently asked the county to build a new medium security detention facility outside of downtown Sarasota so approximately 200 sentenced prisoners could be removed from the county jail, which is reaching its capacity of 1,050 beds.

A 329-bed downtown jail expansion was completed in 2002, but only after unhappy Laurel area residents convinced commissioners not to build a medium security facility in the mid-county. As a result, the project went millions of dollars over budget.

"What we now have is a maximum security facility downtown that doesn't need to be all maximum," Commission Chair Nora Patterson said. "We need something different for people who are not dangerous so we don't just put them in a box."

Several commissioners thought the discussion was premature. "It seems to me like we've jumped a step," Commissioner Joe Barbetta said. "Do we need this? It seems awfully quick. Have we done an offender management study? How about a needs analysis?"

James Schulz, the county's criminal justice policy coordinator, responded that employing a consultant is "the first step in a long process" that wouldn't rule out the possibility of a joint venture with neighboring counties who have similar needs.

"This is a really big decision," Commissioner Jon Thaxton said, "and I don't want to see us move ahead on a split vote. I'd suggest we postpone action while we explore concerns that have been raised. I want a unanimous vote from this commission."

The commissioners unanimously agreed to resume the jail discussion after administrators: 1) investigate a regional jail; 2) analyze utilization of the existing jail; 3) define what is needed in a new jail; and (4) publicly demonstrate why a new jail is needed.

In response to Balkwill's concern about jail crowding and request for a new jail, they recently asked state law enforcement authorities for relief from their "zero tolerance" policy on the arrest and incarceration of parole violators.

On Nov. 14, Patterson signed a letter to Florida Department of Corrections Secretary James R. McDonough that asked him to reconsider the state's get-tough approach on parole violators by allowing local judges to deal with them on a case-by-case basis.

It was an awkward request that came just two years after the brutal rape and murder of 11-year-old Sarasota County resident Carlie Brucia by a parole violator who was not incarcerated. The case received nationwide coverage and stunned community residents.

Patterson's letter reported almost 15 percent of the county jail population - a daily average of 156 inmates - are parole violators who take up available space. She recited a list of county initiatives to ease overcrowding and discussed plans for a new jail.

"The county has also started the process of planning the next jail to keep up with the impact of population growth," she wrote. "However, all of these efforts are seemingly meaningless in the face of state policies that create a significantly large burden on the jail population."

On Dec. 29, McDonough responded to Patterson in a letter that stated all local governments are experiencing an "unprecedented increase in inmate population" as a result of the "get-tougher-on-crime approach by society in general." He opposed relaxing the zero tolerance policy.

Instead, he suggested minor technical parole violations could be reported in a letter rather than a violation report, warrant or affidavit. He said the idea was discussed with 12th Judicial Circuit judges (in Sarasota), but they chose not to go along with it.

"In light of the current jail overcrowding situation, maybe the issue should be revisited," McDonough concluded. "In addition, it may be practical to look into how other counties throughout the state have been able to adapt."

by Jack Gurney Pelican Press

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

A New Jail for Sarasota? Part Two

SARASOTA COUNTY – The county has temporarily put the skids on plans to begin looking for a site to build a new jail, saying the public needs to be convinced first that one is needed.

County commissioners turned skittish Tuesday over approval of a $209,000 contract to hire a jail consultant, who would be charged with designing a new jail and suggesting where it might be built. Commissioner Joe Barbetta said he didn’t want a repeat of the year-and-a-half “nightmare” in the late 1990s, when fierce neighborhood opposition nixed plans to build the new facility outside of downtown.

With the downtown prisoner population edging toward the current jail’s capacity, the county says it may need a new jail by as early as 2011. The $17 million expansion of the jail in 2001 could be seen as cheap in retrospect.

“This is probably one of the biggest expenditures we’re going to make, $50-$60 million possibly,” Barbetta said.

County commissioners delayed approving the contract, saying they also wanted more information on talks with Manatee and DeSoto counties about jointly constructing a new jail. They also called for a public education campaign to prove that a new jail is needed.

“If it’s within shooting distance of Sarasota County, you really do need a public demonstration that a new jail is needed,” said Commissioner Nora Patterson.


Saturday, January 20, 2007

Why former narcs say the drug war is futile

It's understandable why when many people first see Howard Wooldridge, they might at first think he's a crank.

The slender, mustachioed man of middle-age frequently wears a cowboy hat, and has been known to get around town on a horse. He also wears a black shirt with loud, conspicuous lettering on both the front and back. You'd be forgiven to dismiss him as a religious zealot proclaiming the coming apocalypse, or a disciple of Lyndon Larouche.

But look closer. The shirt reads: "COPS SAY LEGALIZE DRUGS: ASK ME WHY."

And people do.

"I get stopped just about everywhere," he says. "The shirt works. I have several different for different occasions – I can get my point across in 30 seconds in an elevator, a few minutes in a restaurant, or full-blown speech at a Rotary Club."

If he doesn't leave people convinced, he at least leaves them asking the right questions.

So does Norm Stamper, former police chief for the city of Seattle.

"People ask how a former cop could say drugs should be legalized, but it's precisely because I love police and love police work that I'm saying it. The drug war stops real cops from doing real police work. It's corrupting. It's wasteful. And it has wrecked communities."

Wooldridge and Stamper are featured speakers for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a relatively new but powerfully motivated group of current and former police officers, judges, prosecutors, and politicians who have come out against America's failed war on drugs.

LEAP was founded in 2002 by Jack Cole, a 26-year veteran of the New Jersey State Police. Cole spent 12 of those years as an undercover narcotics detective. According to his bio, it was his post-retirement struggle with the "emotional residue" left over from his work as a narcotics officer that led him to the realization that the war on drugs has failed.

After forming LEAP, Cole, Wooldridge, and three other founding members hit the public speaking circuit, talking to government classes, Rotary Clubs, and campus organizations. They wrote op-eds for local newspapers, and they debated on radio programs. In just under five years, LEAP now claims more than 6,500 members.

Proponents of drug prohibition tend to dismiss reform groups like NORML or the Drug Policy Alliance as fringe ideologues (politicians seem fond of dismissing the latter group for no other reason than that it gets its funding from George Soros). But when decorated police officers, former police chiefs, and ex-judges and prosecutors speak up, audiences can't help but take notice.

These aren't stoners. They're former public servants, and many risked their lives for a cause they now say is mistaken.

That's powerful stuff. When a guy tells you he regrets what he's done for most of his career -- and what he could well have died for -- his words take on a unique credibility and urgency.

One common characteristic you'll find in many members of LEAP is guilt. Most of these former officers lug around a weighty burden. Many concede they realized early in their careers that the drug war was a failure, and would always be a failure. They regret now that they didn't speak up sooner.

Stamper says in LEAP's promotional video, "Even though I knew that the drug war was harmful financially and psychically and spiritually . . . I should have been saying much more of that, much more strenuously."

One thing LEAP's members can attest to that other drug war critics can't is the drug war's corrupting influence on police officers.

Tony Ryan, one of LEAP's newest member and a well-decorated, 36-year Denver police officer recently wrote in an op-ed, "the huge lure of money is always there, either through bribes by drug dealers, or during busts where piles of money are lying around. Corruption of law enforcement was at its highest during alcohol prohibition and we see it now with drug prohibition."

Any Lexis or Google News search will confirm Ryan's warning about corruption a dozen times over. That's not an indictment of police officers. Rather, it's an indictment of policy that puts police officers in situations where temptation and corruption come begging. But it's still a difficult argument for someone without law enforcement experience to make. Coming from a retired cop – in fact from dozens of them affiliated with LEAP – it becomes impossible for drug war proponents to ignore.

LEAP's message is powerful. I've now heard or seen four of its speakers' presentations. They use tales from the front lines to illustrate their broader points on public policy. Their delivery is authentic and gently persuasive, not didactic. They come from all political stripes, from hippy-ish liberals to live-and-let-live libertarians to law-and-order conservatives, the latter having come to the realization that the drug war consists of bad laws that cause much disorder.

For several years now, LEAP has been looking for a debate with the country's top drug policymakers – anyone from DEA Administrator Karen Tandy to Drug Czar John Walters to powerful prohibition politicians like Indiana Rep. Mark Souder.

So far, they've had little luck. That's too bad. If the drug war is still as important and necessary as our leaders in government say it is, it's champions should be able to defend it--especially against the law enforcement officers they've asked to fight it.

by Radley Balko | January 18, 2007

Friday, January 12, 2007

Housing not Jails

Jail squeeze influences 'sober' housing: (pelican Press by Jack Gurney)

A pressing need for jail beds has convinced Sarasota County to subsidize "sober houses" for graduates of local substance abuse programs who have no place to live, and face the prospect of being incarcerated because they are homeless.

On Tuesday, the county commission allocated $320,000 to help finance rents, security deposits, utilities, furnishings and other start-up costs for non-profit groups that lease and supervise group homes for up to six unrelated tenants in recovery.

While the pilot project envisions only 50 beds in a handful of homes that would provide a safe environment for up to 24 months, Commissioner Paul Mercier suggested the community's need for such facilities is probably closer to 500 beds.

"This should include condominiums and apartments," he said. "Our staff recommendation is that First Step of Sarasota [a rehabilitation organization] administer the funds, but my recommendation would be the Salvation Army because it's where people look for help."

The county has philosophically grappled with how to address homeless people who have substance abuse issues, but are not lawbreakers. Many of them are booked into the county jail because there is no other place to provide them with safe shelter.

Ironically, the county is currently in a legal jam with the U.S. Justice Department because it tried to close five Warm Mineral Springs group homes for residents who are recovering from alcohol and mental health problems. It has been charged with Fair Housing Act violations.

While the county's actions in the Warm Mineral Springs case were in response to complaints from unhappy neighbors, its motivation to put recovering substance abuse residents somewhere other than jail is directly related to the absence of available cells.

The county jail in downtown Sarasota is filled to more than its capacity of 1,050 inmates, and extra beds have recently been placed in cells to accommodate the overload. A county consultant has been hired to study the situation and make recommendations.

Last year, Sheriff Bill Balkwill requested a new mid-county jail outside the city limits for between 200 to 300 sentenced prisoners to relieve the crowding situation. The problem is where to locate such a structure without angering neighbors.

In 1998, the county commission considered locations outside the city and listened to complaints from residents who felt threatened by a jail near their neighborhoods. It reluctantly agreed to construct a 329-bed addition to the downtown facility.

Now the expanded jail is overcrowded. Absent plans for providing additional cells, the county commission has asked for relief from a state "zero tolerance" policy on the arrest and incarceration of probation violators because there is no place to put them.

The $320,000 allocation by the county commission will help fund a program called the "Community Alternative Residential Treatment Initiative," which also includes detoxification and stabilization services and a 10-week substance abuse program.

It has been endorsed by two organizations that deal with law enforcement and substance abuse issues, the Criminal Justice Commission and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Stakeholders Consortium. Both groups support interim housing for program graduates.

The concept of "sober homes" scattered around a community is based on the Oxford House model, which was established in Silver Springs, Md., 32 years ago and has been widely copied. Variations on the model are operating in Charlotte and Manatee counties.

Residents of the all-male or all-female "sober homes" typically sign a lease agreement for a maximum stay of 24 months, although some are allowed to remain indefinitely. Rent is typically $175 a week, with vouchers available for those who are unemployed.

The program described to the county commission includes a $10,000 annual payment to the provider of each home, plus $2,000 per resident. It includes about $100,000 for vouchers, which would be available for unemployed program graduates.