Sarasota County commissioners learned officially Tuesday morning what many of them have known privately for a while: Too often young offenders aren't being arrested, and therefore don't receive help in substance abuse, mental health or behavioral programs until they become adults or commit serious offenses - when it may be too late.
The reason: Sarasota County today has no facility to evaluate juvenile offenders and determine whether to jail them in a regional juvenile detention facility in Bradenton, or send them to a diversionary program in Sarasota.
Sarasota's old Juvenile Assessment Center, once housed in the county jail by the courthouse downtown, was closed down Oct. 1 in compliance with a state law, the Martin Lee Anderson Act, named for a youth killed by poorly trained officers in a detention center boot camp.
Ever since, assessment center staffers have had to work out of a Bradenton detention center, which means officers who arrest minors must drive them to Bradenton in their squad cars, wait for assessment professionals to make a determination - which officials say can take upwards of two hours - and sometimes drive the offender back home or to another facility after that.
That can mean four hours off the street for a Sarasota Police officer, and maybe six or more for an officer from the North Port Police Department. As a result, juvenile arrests fell quickly by 50 percent or more for the first few months after the assessment center closed, and remain at least 25 percent below last year's arrest rate, although juvenile justice personnel say that actual offenses are being committed at the same rate or higher.
Police officers and sheriff's deputies are just far less willing to make an arrest.
Ironically that falloff is making it hard to justify staffing the two juvenile assessment centers in Sarasota County - one near North Port and another in the City of Sarasota - which law enforcement agencies have requested.
"It's a real Catch-22," said Criminal Justice Coordinator James Schulz. "Police on the streets have the ability to make a choice [about making an arrest], and with borderline cases, juvenile offenders might not get to the JAC."
The commission on Tuesday asked staffers to explore a new, temporary assessment center site in north county near I-75, and estimate the costs of at least a part-time center in North Port Police headquarters offered for that purpose by Chief Terry Lewis.
Coastal Behavioral Health Care, the county contractor that runs the assessment center, will work up cost estimates for an upcoming commission meeting, said the agency's CEO, Jerry Thompson.
Fortunately, some $665,000 was earmarked for a new center in the local option sales tax extension budget approved in 2000, he said.
A secure assessment facility at the county jail downtown is part of a pending remodeling project that should be ready in 12 to 14 months, according to Schulz.
County Administrator Jim Ley used Tuesday's discussion to criticize the state for what amounts to another "unfunded mandate" inherent in the Anderson Act, forcing the counties to spend money because of its changes in state law.
But Commissioner Shannon Staub said the discussion should be refocused. "No, it's about the kids," she said. "We're not now taking charge of the kids we can turn around. We have to step back and see if we can find a solution for the kids."
In 1998, state authorities encouraged Sarasota County to provide land for a separate, 52-bed detention facility where juveniles could be assessed and - if necessary - detained. The county commission would not commit to the project.
The state funds for that project were eventually shifted to provide 20 new beds in an expansion of the Manatee County Juvenile Detention Center, and 20 beds were added to a Marion County facility to improve its intake and screening capability.
The state currently allocates $210,000 a year for the operation of a juvenile assessment center in Sarasota County, while the county allocates $300,000 so Coastal Behavioral Health Care experts can screen troubled youths and make referrals.
by Rick Barry Pelican Press