A politically unpleasant decision to build new jail facilities for sentenced prisoners outside of downtown Sarasota will have to be addressed by Sarasota County elected officials, but only after a long-range planning exercise plays out.
On March 26, a six-person county contingent of jail administrators and others who must deal with the swelling prisoner population will leave for a detention services conference outside Denver that could provide some answers about how best to proceed.
"It should help us get better prepared for an April 3 workshop with the county commission," said James Schulz, the county's criminal justice coordinator. "We haven't determined exactly what this community needs yet. There are questions we have to answer."
What Sheriff Bill Balkwill, Schulz and others want to avoid is last-minute decisions handed down by cornered commissioners who are forced to address jail overcrowding while at the same time placating residents who don't want a facility near their neighborhood.
It happened in 1998 when the commission buckled to pressure from Laurel area residents and grossly overpaid for a downtown maximum security jail addition rather than build a medium security facility near the new landfill east of Interstate-75.
As a result, the sheriff's jail staff was unable to provide space for rehabilitative services such as life skills, job training and continuing education, or set up metal and sewing shops where sentenced prisoners could work while serving out terms of less than one year.
"Had I been here when the north wing [jail addition] was built," Schulz said, "I would have asked how long 288 new beds will last. The next steps taken need to be more long-term and provide flexibility. I'm telling everyone I know we're going to outgrow this downtown jail."
Last year, Balkwill asked the county to build a new medium security detention facility outside the city so approximately 200 sentenced prisoners could be removed from the jail population, which is rapidly reaching its capacity of 1,050 beds.
On Jan. 23, the commission balked when asked to approve more than $200,000 for a jail consultant's expert advice, but agreed to revisit the issue as part of a discussion that includes the possibility of a regional facility for sentenced prisoners.
Criminal justice officials were directed to contact both DeSoto and Manatee counties to determine whether they would consider jointly building and operating a new facility for sentenced prisoners. Those conversations have not taken place.
"We haven't rushed off to explore this option with DeSoto and Manatee yet," Schulz said. "DeSoto has also accepted an invitation to attend the conference in Colorado, so we'll be talking to them about partnering. We have time for a deliberative process."
At its Jan. 23 meeting, and in a follow-up discussion on Feb. 2, the commission agreed to resume deliberations after criminal justice officials : 1) investigate a regional jail; 2) analyze the existing jail; 3) identify what is needed in a new jail; and (4) make the case for a new jail.
written by Jack Gurney Pelican Press