SARASOTA — With almost 400 inmates in the Sarasota County Jail identified as having mental health or substance abuse issues, county commissioners took another step forward to create a secured treatment facility to help them.
By a unanimous vote Oct. 21, commissioners approved hiring a consultant to help staff prepare the design for a 200-bed secured treatment facility to help inmates with mental health or substance abuse problems and reduce recidivism in the jail.
The move furthered actions taken by commissioners during budget discussions in 2019 approving the concept in principle. At the same time, commissioners also approved a three-year pilot program for a 40-bed facility at First Step in downtown Sarasota.
Data from that program, which has been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic but is expected to begin operating next spring, will be useful in designing the new facility.
“There’s been a significant shift in the way our community identifies the way these people need to be treated so that we can get them back in society so that it’s not a revolving door,” Commissioner Charles Hines said. “I believe our community would overwhelmingly support this when they understand that this is the right way to go.”
Sheriff Tom Knight, who has advocated for these facilities and instituted several programs inside the jail to treat inmates, repeated a story he’d told commissioners this past February.
Jail staff, Knight said, had identified 10 people who had been arrested 109 times by Sarasota police and 78 times by his deputies. Once they had gone through the special programs in the jail, eight of those individuals have not been re-arrested.
“That’s a pretty good recidivism rate reduction,” Knight said.
The cost of the 200-bed treatment facility is not known, Health and Human Services Director Chuck Henry told commissioners, nor has a funding source been identified.
Previously, commissioners had planned to place a referendum on next week’s general election ballot to create a Mental Health District for the county. Some of the funding resulting from that district would have been used for the 200-bed facility, but commissioners decided during the summer to put off the referendum due to the pandemic.
The new facility will be located in downtown Sarasota next to the jail and be operated by the sheriff.