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