Saturday, May 12, 2007

A New jail for Sarasota County? Part 7

New jail plan should include services for juveniles:

A new Sarasota County jail for sentenced prisoners may not be everybody's political cup of tea, but a flexible design that provides safe space for badly needed juvenile services could make it more palatable for taxpayers who may otherwise be reticent.

Sheriff Bill Balkwill has made a strong case that the county jail in downtown Sarasota is often overcrowded and conditions will only get worse as the community grows. His recommended solution is to relieve the situation by moving sentenced prisoners to another facility.

Such a decision would free up 200 to 300 beds - depending on how big the new jail is - and potentially a lot more in future years if the design provides for expansions. Politicians and planners should think years ahead when they consider this project.

Less than a decade ago, former Sheriff Geoff Monge came to the county commission with the same problem and request. His recommended solution was a medium-security jail for sentenced prisoners outside the city, but discussions were muddied by election-year rhetoric.

The result was an over-budget and short-sighted downtown jail addition that only served to put off the inevitable. So what we have is a maximum-security jail with none of the social services that help prepare prisoners for a more productive life after they are released.

Worse yet, the same commissioners also turned a blind eye to state juvenile justice officials who offered to build the county a new detention facility. The result has been catastrophic for many troubled youngsters at dangerous crossroads in their lives.

County deputies and municipal police officers must drive them to a facility in Bradenton where they are screened by counselors and either sent home or held until their cases are heard. Hours of patrol time are squandered because of this inefficiency and waste.

The situation is so bad that some deputies and officers refuse to arrest all but the most serious juvenile offenders because of the down time involved in driving them north and waiting while they are processed. So they are allowed to roam free until trouble finds them again.

A new jail for sentenced prisoners isn't going to spring up overnight. It will take at least a year to plan and several more to build. In the interim, a temporary solution to the juvenile arrest crisis should be addressed so critical decisions about our young are made in this county.

The notion that one of the most affluent communities in this nation cannot find a proper location to interview juvenile offenders and determine what is best for them is unconscionable, and shouldn't be treated in routine fashion by our public officials.

Later this month, the county commission is tentatively scheduled to approve a contract for consultant services on the new jail. It also needs to move this project along, and not allow it to fall prey to the narrow-minded thinking that prevailed a few short years ago.

An editorial from the Pelican Press

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