At the Charlotte County Jail, many inmates sleep on "boats," or plastic beds on the ground. That's because there are 612 inmates crammed into a facility designed for 528.
The conditions are just as crowded at the DeSoto County Jail, which has 160 inmates for 148 beds, and the Sarasota County Jail, which has an operating capacity of 872 but last month housed 1,084 inmates.
"Unfortunately, you violate your own rules," said DeSoto County Sheriff Vernon L. Keen. "We set rules that are based on the safety and welfare and so forth of the staff and the inmates, and then we violate it because we don't have anything else to do with them."
On Aug. 8, the Sun held a roundtable discussion with nine people who deal with jail overcrowding at the law enforcement, jail administration, court and government levels. They spoke about why some inmates spend so long in jail and what can be done to alleviate overcrowding -- including utilizing alternative methods of sentencing.
The time it takes to get to trial plays a role in jail overcrowding. Nearly half of the people at the Charlotte, DeSoto and Sarasota jails are awaiting felony trials. It can take years for those cases to reach a resolution.
That delay is related to the increasing number of felony cases entering the judicial system. In 2005, 1,750 cases entered the system, then 1,910 in 2006, according to Assistant State Attorney Daniel P. Feinberg, who works in Charlotte County. So far this year, there are 1,369 felony cases. Two judges handle felony cases in Charlotte County.
Many others are in jail for relatively minor offenses -- driving with a suspended or revoked license, or violation of probation.
"A lot of our citizens want everybody arrested," said Charlotte County Sheriff John Davenport. "It's the citizens themselves who need to be educated."
Defense attorney Paul D. Sullivan agreed. "I think our problem is, we want to lock up too many of our citizens," he said. "People get arrested for stuff they never used to get arrested for."
Sullivan pointed out that driver's licenses are often revoked as a penalty for crimes unrelated to driving, such as drug charges. However, people often need to drive to get to work, and consequently end up back in jail. Probation is another issue that plays into jail overcrowding -- probation officers do not always have much discretion over whether to arrest a person on even a minor violation, and those arrested on violation of probation charges typically are booked into jail without bond.
At the Charlotte County Jail, those arrested on violation of probation charges -- both misdemeanor and felony -- make up about 14 percent of the inmate population.
Keen said the way people committing driving offenses and probation violations are dealt with is a reflection of the public's expectations. As an example, he pointed out that there could be considerable public outcry if a person driving on a suspended or revoked license got into a crash and killed someone.
"Maybe they put too much emphasis on 'he didn't have a license,'" Keen said. "They eat us up when something happens. There's not a problem until there's a problem."
Though arrests for probation violation may contribute to jail overcrowding, the program itself is one of the most frequently-used alternatives to incarceration. Rather than serve a sentence entirely behind bars, many defendants are placed on probation, which requires them to keep in contact with a probation officer and follow a set of guidelines that may include a curfew or random drug testing, among other conditions.
Jon Embury, court services manager in Charlotte County, said many defendants have come to expect probation.
"It's not looked at as an alternative anymore," he said.
What's more, the penalty for violating the terms of probation is going to jail or prison to serve out a sentence.
"Probation is only effective if there's a threat of incarceration," said Judge Paul Alessandroni.
Another alternative to incarceration is electronic monitoring, which costs about $16 per day. However, Embury pointed out that a determined criminal could cut off the monitoring device.
"There's not going to be one magic bullet," Embury said.
Diversion programs exist for some first-time defendants and those with drug and mental health problems. Charlotte County's drug court accepts 15 people at a time and focuses on getting treatment for people with addictions.
"For the most part, people who deserve to be in these programs get in these programs," Feinberg said. "We can give them some opportunities they wouldn't otherwise have."
However, it can be difficult to coordinate limited resources to operate such programs.
"If I've got to do a drug court program, I've got to staff an attorney -- I've got to pull one of 15 attorneys that handle all of our cases, and that attorney's got to spend ... a minimum of three hours per week to spend on a population of 15," Feinberg said, "When we're having a 21 percent increase in felony crimes."
Another problem with those programs is the limited pool of qualified applicants, Feinberg said. Many are designed for first-time, nonviolent offenders, and defendants' prior records may render them ineligible.
"Your average is probably around nine or 10 (prior) offenses," Feinberg said. "I don't know what else to do with them ... I can't divert them."
Those waiting for their cases to be resolved are sometimes released from jail on their own recognizance -- a practice Sullivan felt should be more widely used with those accused of minor infractions, rather than pretrial release, which involves more supervision.
Those who work in pretrial supervision are "doing a great service, they're there every morning, but they ought to be supervising somebody else because the people who wind up in pretrial release services should be ROR," Sullivan said.
At the roundtable, all nine participants agreed that there was no simple solution to the problem of jail overcrowding.
"Obviously, it's not something we can solve overnight, or we would've done it," Keen said.
SOME ALTERNATIVE PROGRAMS
* Community control
* Pretrial intervention -- for first-time, nonviolent offenders. Those who go through a particular program can have their cases not prosecuted.
* Worthless check, domestic violence, pretrial and misdemeanor diversion programs
* Drug court
* Mental health court
* Supervised or pretrial release
* Teen court
* Drug court
* Mental health court
* Pretrial services
* CART (Community Alternative Residential Treatment) Initiative -- a three-phase program for individuals with mental health and addiction issues.
By CAROLYN QUINN