OUR POSITION: Sarasota County commissioners endorse three-year residential treatment project.

More than a decade ago, criminal justice officials from Sarasota County made the long trip across the country to visit a different style of corrections facility in Oregon. It was a progressive sort place that stressed inmate rehabilitation.

The Washington County (Oregon) Community Corrections Center turned heads. Returning to Sarasota, the visitors raved about the possibility this approach could lower recidivism — the oft-mentioned “frequent flyer” syndrome — and lower public costs that came with building and operating jails. At the same time, it could address the needs of individuals caught in the spiral of drug or alcohol abuse that tended to lash them to a series of entanglements with the criminal justice system.

That was more than a decade ago, before the recession handcuffed public budgets and before lower crime rates eased the crisis of jail overcrowding.

The idea persisted, though. Washington County and others like it remained the model for Sarasota County’s Criminal Justice Commission, the group of judges, attorneys, social service providers and law enforcement officers who met regularly to hash out ways to address these issues. Other steps were taken: expansion of drug court, veterans court, diversion and targeted jail programs.

But last week, the next big step came when the Sarasota County Commission agreed to fund a pilot project that takes a major step beyond the norm and into secure and targeted offender rehabilitative services.

It’s not a stretch to suggest that, if successful, this program might serve as a model for others in the state.

By unanimous agreement, the commission endorsed the creation of a special 40-bed secured residential treatment and re-entry facility. The likely location is the First Step residential treatment facility in Sarasota.

The program isn’t cheap: an estimated $3.8 million per year for operations and another $500,000 to secure the building for low-risk inmates. The authorization was for a three-year project, so it’s not open-ended.

“A three-year pilot program will give us the data to see it it works,” said commission Chairman Charles Hines. “Space at the jail just can’t do it.”

Outgoing Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight has for many years been the most visible public advocate of alternative services for inmates. Two years ago, Knight summed up succinctly the potential of alternative facilities while discussing the renewed increase rise in jail population.

“It’s not free, but it’s cheaper than jail,” he said.

Farther off behind the scenes, an ardent force for more than a decade has been Circuit Judge Lee Haworth, now retired.

On Wednesday, addressing the commission, Haworth summed up the overall rationale:

“We get tired of doing the same thing over and over again and having bad consequences. There are people sitting in our jails that don’t need to be there, but we have no place to put them.”

Haworth, Knight and others deserve kudos for their continual advocacy for alternatives. They are on the mark.

Treatment center programs may save taxpayers’ money; that’s the promise, at least. They do also address directly the underlying causes of incarceration for a significant number of offenders, and it may help those people break out of a destructive cycle.

There’s one more important point made last from another longtime advocate, former County Commissioner Jon Thaxton, now with the Gulf Coast Community Foundation:

“This is also morally the right thing to do.”

Agreed on all counts.

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