It was only three months ago that Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight warned that growing crowding issues might force construction of a new jail in Sarasota County within the next two years.
It was a sobering thought – if for no other reason that costs to build a new jail might run to $80 million.
Fortunately, Knight has offered reasonable alternatives which have been endorsed throughout the criminal justice system. The basic premise is straightforward:Keep people out of jail if they don’t pose a threat to public safety.
One way to do that is by increasing the use of alternatives that divert people into specialty treatment programs, like drug court or mental health court. Another would be to lower bail imposed on those accused of smaller-level crimes. A third would accelerate the process used for probation violations which may be minor screw-ups, not something that warrants extra jail time and the extra costs that come with it.
“We need smart incarceration. We don’t need to incarcerate everybody,” Knight told a luncheon crowd at the monthly Sarasota Tiger Bay forum, according to the Sarasota Herald Tribune.
It sounds right. Who really wants to spend millions more to keep people locked up if it can be reasonably avoided and public safety can be reasonably ensured? While locking-’em-up may serve the fundamental goal of punishment, it doesn’t necessarily serve a companion goal — rehabilitation. We end up with a treadmill of recidivism, people who cycle in and out of the jail system without getting treatment for their underlying problems.
Again, public costs escalate. And no one is particularly well-served.
In a broad sense, changes proposed locally are reflecting long-needed reforms nationally.
Just before Christmas, Congress passed and President Trump signed a criminal justice reform bill called the “First Step Act.” It was a historic revision of federal criminal justice statutes, the first in decades. It also was a surprising and most-welcome display of bipartisanship in the capital.
Among many other things, the new law overhauls the prison system to help get more inmates into rehabilitation programs and cut the length of time they must serve behind bars. By participating in vocational or rehab services, prisoners will be able to earn more “good time credits” that allow early release into halfway houses and home confinement.
The national trend reflects positive local currents, we believe. In reality, many believe local reform movements drive national trends: What works locally can be applied on a larger scale.
Getting the right balance is trickier than it seems, of course. But the goal is sound, but Knight and others in the criminal justice system here have been whittling away at this for years now.
In recent years, Sarasota County has increased spending and focus on alternative services and specialty courts – Drug Court, Veterans Court, Mental Health Court, Comprehensive Treatment Court. Misdemeanor violators no longer clog jails. Still, Knight told the Tiger Bay crowd there are more alternatives — for probation violations and minor third-degree felony offenders, notably those involving drug possession.
The Sarasota County Commission will hold a workshop to discuss the options with Knight, et al., in February. At that time, we hope to see more thoughtful and efficient tweaks to the system.
An editorial from the Charlotte Sun.^p