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Jail debate sees commuted sentence

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  • | 4:00 a.m. September 5, 2013
Maj. Jim Lilly, of the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, has led a transformation at the Sarasota County Jail that has kept the inmate population 44% below a 2005 estimate. Photo by Yaryna Klimchak.
Maj. Jim Lilly, of the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, has led a transformation at the Sarasota County Jail that has kept the inmate population 44% below a 2005 estimate. Photo by Yaryna Klimchak.
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When Maj. Jim Lilly, of the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, took the reins of the Sarasota County Jail in 2009, he had to change the way he saw criminals.

 “When I was on patrol, it was all about arresting people,” Lilly, a 33-year law-enforcement veteran, said. “Now that I’m in charge of the jail, my No. 1 concern is whether we have the right people behind bars.”

Lilly’s personal evolution parallels the institutional one he led, with the support of Sheriff Tom Knight, in changing the way Sarasota County decides who goes to jail and prevents inmates from coming back. Through the use of diversion programs, substance-abuse treatments and an initiative to facilitate the reintegration of inmates to society, the Sheriff’s Office stalled last year’s spike in the jail population and saved the county the projected $85 million cost of a new jail.

A 2005 study, done by an independent consultant, predicted that by 2013, Sarasota County’s daily jail population would top 1,600 inmates. This year the jail is averaging around 900 inmates daily, Lilly said, which exceeds its operational capacity of 872.

“Big busts such as ‘Booster Buster’ can give us periodic spikes,” Lilly said, referring to last month’s Operation Booster Buster, a Sheriff’s Office sting on retail theft that landed 59 shoplifters behind bars. “But, we’ve managed to stem last year’s rise in inmate population.”

The jail has space for 1,026 inmates, but to segregate offenders based on the seriousness of their crimes, the jail aims to operate at 85% capacity — which is 872.

“We don’t want to put violent offenders together with people in for misdemeanors,” Lilly explained. “That’s for the safety of the inmates.”

Compared with the rest of the state, Sarasota County has a small incarceration rate relative to its population. According to Florida Department of Law Enforcement data, Sarasota’s incarceration rate is 2.3 inmates per 1,000 residents — below the state average of 2.8 per 1,000.

Even with the low incarceration rate, the 2012 uptick in inmate population had some area lawmakers concerned that the existing jail, built in 1975, would need to be replaced. Lilly said that despite operating at maximum operational capacity, the current jail, which receives arrests from Sarasota Police and other area law-enforcement departments, is still sufficient and the inmate population is still 44% lower than what was predicted in 2005.

“We haven’t hit the threshold yet where we need a new jail,” Lilly said. “Comparing our population to the 2005 estimates really shows the effectiveness of the diversion programs.”

Lilly said diversion programs keep the right people in jail and free up space by allowing arrestees who pose a low risk to the communities to serve sentences in alternative ways.

One such program is pre-trial release, which gives judges the discretion of weighing factors like an offender’s employment history, family situation, criminal record and the circumstances of the crime in determining whether awaiting trial in jail is necessary. The offenders can be released on their own recognizance or put on supervised release.

“We’re not trying to push people out who need to be in jail,” Lilly said. “We don’t want people to skate on their punishments. But we need to be smarter about how those punishments are assigned.”

Substance-abuse treatment is also used to keep the recidivism rate low. The Sarasota jail devotes about 8% of its total capacity to substance abuse “recovery pods,” which segregate offenders with alcohol- and drug-abuse problems and provide treatment in jail. This increases the chances of inmates continuing treatment once their sentences are up, Lilly said, and often prevents another crime. According to Sheriff’s Office data, the recidivism rate among inmates in the recovery pods is lower than the general population.

With about 80% of inmates waiting to go to court, another way to cap the incarcerated population is by restricting the amount of time inmates sit in jail awaiting trial. Lilly works with public defenders and state attorneys to expedite the trial process.

According the Sheriff’s Office data, only 3% of Sarasota inmates go on to state prison. To address the transition needs of the other 97% who re-enter Sarasota County straight out of an institutional environment, the jail partnered with the Salvation Army to provide three days of housing and job-skills training for newly released inmates. The jail also transfers inmates’ funds to debit cards (which, unlike checks, can be used without ID) and provides three days’ worth of medication that can be accessed from a downtown pharmacy.

“We try to get people to the door, ready to successfully re-integrate,” Lilly said. “Them (inmates) having a place to go is golden in preventing them from re-offending in a short period of time.”

The one black mark for Sarasota’s jail is its recidivism rate. According to FDLE data, an average 40% of Sarasota inmates return to jail within a year, compared with 27.6% statewide.

Lilly attributes Sarasota’s high recidivism rate to the fact that the county is doing a better job of identifying inmates who are unlikely to commit another crime and keeping them out of jail through diversion programs. This results in a higher percentage of inmates in jail who are likely to come back, Lilly said.

“If we just threw everyone in jail, our recidivism rate would be lower,” Lilly said. “Our diversion programs keep people out of jail who aren’t a threat to the community. That means, statistically speaking, the people we do have incarcerated are more likely to be re-arrested.”

County estimates put the cost of a new jail between $60 million and $85 million.

The corrections division has an annual budget of $26 million, 85% of which goes to salaries, Lilly said.

“Diversion programs don’t save the county a lot of money on their own,” Lilly said. “Our budget stays the same even if the jail population goes down. But, we saved the county a lot of money by not expanding the jail or building a new one — for now, at least.”



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