Nobody appeared to be listening when Sarasota County Sheriff Bill Balkwill asked for a new jail last year. The politically repugnant subject was quietly discussed in back rooms, but seldom addressed in public forums before cameras and microphones. That has changed.
On Tuesday, the county commission finally came to grips with the obvious. There aren't enough cells and beds available in the current jail for a fast-growth community such as Sarasota, so there needs to be another one for sentenced prisoners.
Where will it be? How big will it be? What will it look like? Who will run it?. What services will it provide? There are no answers yet, but a consensus exists among the commissioners to spend about $200,000 on a consultant so the planning process can begin.
"There were 1,142 prisoners in jail last November and 1,036 beds," Major Daryl Stinger said. "When we squeeze people into cells, and they sleep on portable beds, there is more pressure on everyone. There are fights. If we start building a new jail today it will still take years to finish."
Commission Chair Nora Patterson acknowledged the predicament. "What I hear is we need a new facility," she said. "People don't think they want a jail located near them because it will hurt property values. But it didn't hurt them when we added onto the downtown jail."
Criminal justice officials and circuit court judges met with the commission to support a process that will probably encounter resistance from some residents who fear the location of jail anywhere near their homes. It is a reality the commission will have to address.
"What we need to do is a have a realistic conversation with the community," Patterson said. "We need to be firm with people and tell them we can't go downtown again. We also have to have a conversation with our cities because they are involved."
The approach commissioners will apparently attempt to take involves wrapping the new jail into a long-range planning process similar to one that took place in Broomfield, Colo., a Denver suburb that built a new jail before nearby offices and apartments were developed.
County officials who recently attended a Denver conference on planning for new facilities such as jails tried to lay out a step-by-step scenario for the commission that would treat the jail as a community amenity rather than a political hot potato.
"We need to think not just 15 years out into the future, but maybe 30 years," Health Department Director Bill Little said. "We're not at the point yet where we're ready to say we need a 200-bed minimum security facility. We have to consider program development and alternatives."
Commissioner Joe Barbetta wasn't convinced. "Jails are for violent criminals," he said. "Of the 1,000 who are in and out of our jail, about 600 are violent and belong. Our efforts should be aimed at the other 400 who probably shouldn't be there."
The problem for those prisoners is often what to do when they leave jail. "Joe Barbetta is right, but it's not that simple," Commissioner Paul Mercier said. "We need to involve our business community in this discussion. People need jobs when they get out of jail."
Because the downtown Sarasota jail is a maximum security facility there is no room for educational services or job training programs. It was a glaring short-coming when commissioners voted for a jail addition in 1998 rather than build a new jail for sentenced prisoners outside the city.
While there was no vote, a commission majority indicated it was time to move forward and County Administrator Jim Ley agreed to produce a contract for consultant services. It shouldn't take long because there is already one on his desk.
It has been there since Jan. 23, when the commission balked at approving $200,000 for a jail consultant and directed administrators to investigate the possibility of building a regional facility with DeSoto and Manatee counties.
Those efforts were reportedly rebuffed at the Colorado conference when DeSoto County officials indicated they would rather address jail and prisoner needs on their own. There was no discussion about the possibility of pursing joint efforts with Manatee County.
by Jack Gurney Pelican Press