Friday, April 20, 2007

Packed Pinellas jail set to free inmates:

Those accused of misdemeanors and ordinance violations will be the first group allowed to leave.

Hundreds of inmates in Pinellas County's chronically overcrowded jail could be released thanks to a judge's order.

The inmates eligible first for release would be those accused of misdemeanors or violations of local ordinances.

If that doesn't provide enough relief, Sheriff Jim Coats could ask judges to consider freeing people accused of nonviolent felonies, like retail theft and drug possession. After that, the sheriff could set free inmates sentenced to the county jail who have only a short time left to serve.

The authorization to free certain inmates, issued this week by Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Chief Judge David Demers, comes as the jail's population hovers around 3,600 - 1,100 more than it was originally designed to house.

The crush of inmates has made it difficult to control tensions and the spread of disease. Last year, attacks on jail staff jumped 82 percent.

The order empowers Coats to lower the population only to 3,300, the jail's modified capacity.

"I asked for all this responsibility in order to do something to help relieve this overcrowding," Coats said Thursday. "This will be a slow, methodical process as we review those who meet the criteria for release. We're not going to release anyone with a history of violence or who is being held for a very serious crime."

Demers issued the administrative order after a yearlong series of meetings between the sheriff, prosecutors, public defenders and other judges. Demers said Thursday that it was a temporary fix for a problem that will inevitably get worse.

Officials expect the recently passed state Anti-Murder Act, which requires violent felons who violate probation be jailed until they see a judge, to add to the crowding problems in Pinellas.

"We may get through the current crisis, but sooner or later, we'll have another," Demer said.

The population at the Pinellas jail began to spike in 2004, driven in large part by a zero-tolerance policy by the state's probation officers. The policy change came after 11-year-old Carlie Brucia of Sarasota was killed by a man on probation.

At times, as many as 400 inmates were being held on such charges, but the figure has declined in recent months as judges work to process the cases faster.

Coats also said Thursday he is expanding the use of electronic monitoring devices, from 200 to 300. The monitoring devices are cheaper than incarceration and free up space in the jail for other inmates. Ultimately, Coats will have to hire another staff member to help monitor the group.

The judge also urged Coats to use the discretion his staff already has to speed up processing of ordinance violators, issuing them a court appearance notice rather than booking them in jail.

Both prosecutors and public defenders, while they were involved in the creation of the new order, raised concerns about how much, or how little, it will actually do.

"It's a good start," Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger said. "But we have a long way to go to changing the way we think about who we put in these very expensive jails. I think we have an awful lot of people in jail who are poor."

Dillinger said he would like to see 1,000 people on electronic monitoring, enabling them to be productive in society and work.

"We just can't keep building jails," he added. "People who are on monitors have a very, very low re-offending rate and sooner or later, the expense of all this will drive us to do what is real and safe and positive."

Bruce Bartlett, the chief assistant in State Attorney Bernie McCabe's office, said that while Demers' order contains safeguards against releasing dangerous inmates, he worried that too much discretion was given to deputies who book newly arrested suspects.

"You essentially have a non-judge, non-lawyer deciding who is going to be released or not," he said.

But Bartlett said he anticipates the release of low-level offenders will be enough to alleviate the immediate crowding problem.

"I don't think it's as bad as it looks," he said.

Two jail expansion projects are due to open in coming months. An abandoned PSTA bus garage near the jail is being renovated to house 288 inmates. It is scheduled to open in August. And a $36-million medical building with 400 beds may also open in August more than a year behind schedule.

Pinellas voters also approved in March a 10-year extension of the 1 percent Penny for Pinellas sales tax, which the county will use to expand the jail complex. The first priority: a new 2,500-bed facility that would bring the jail's capacity to 5,298.

Thursday, however, more than 200 inmates were still sleeping on the floor, some of them old, some with serious health problems. Micah Sanders, 18, charged with burglary, has been in the jail more than a month. He said he just got a bunk to sleep on two days ago.

His broken arm was in a hard cast.

"We're lucky to get pillows in here," he said. "It's stressful."

By JACOB H. FRIES St. Petersburg Times
Published April 20, 2007
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

FAST FACTS: Who could go
The first inmates eligible for release from the Pinellas County Jail under the judge's order would be those whose highest charge is a local ordinance violation -- such as urinating in public or having an open container of alcohol -- or a misdemeanor -- such as petty theft or trespassing. If the release of those inmates didn't alleviate crowding, jail staff could ask judges to consider releasing people accused of third-degree felonies, such as forgery, grand theft or careless driving with a suspended license.

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