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Kudos to Sarasota County for criminal justice innovations

Strategies to hold the line on jail population are working.

  • Sarasota
  • Opinion
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County Commissioners recently spent an afternoon  with Sheriff Tom Knight and county staff doing a deep dive on the county jail population and criminal justice programs. The news was overwhelmingly good, with trends for jail population and crime all going the right direction.

I came away from watching the workshop thoroughly impressed with how comprehensively Sarasota County has incorporated best practices in criminal justice reform and is really on the cutting edge of a number of policies and practices that are likely to go statewide soon.

A few years ago, the county walked up to the edge of a decision to spend a vast sum of money to build a big new jail complex to house an expanding jail population. But the County Commission stepped back from that decision and instead embraced reform designed to reduce the jail population rather than accept that growth in jail population must continue.

Sheriff Tom Knight
Sheriff Tom Knight

Some of the cutting-edge criminal justice practices the county implemented include:

  • Drug court, where minor drug crimes and addicts are evaluated to see if treatment and other programs are more likely to straighten them out than jail time.
  • Mental health court, where mentally ill offenders are assessed for alternatives to jail to treat their problems.
  • Experiments with sentencing options and work crew programs to provide alternatives from standard doing-time-in-a-cell forms of punishment.
  • A “continuum of care” approach that improves effectiveness by providing consistency in social service, programming, and other help from initial arrest through after punishment.
  • Alternatives to the use of monetary bonds and bail so that poor people who are not a flight risk don’t need to be in jail while awaiting trial, as this often has catastrophic consequences on employment, child care, etc.

The result has been an impressive and steady decline in the average daily population in the county jail, and an accompanying reduction in overcrowding problems. Continuing with current programs has put the county on track to no longer have more inmates in the jail than there should be for optimal operations within just a few years.

Knight told the Sarasota Tiger Bay club in January, “We need smart incarceration. We don’t need to incarcerate everybody. You’ve probably heard it from me before: You are not ever going to arrest your way out of addiction.” Specifically addressing the question of the need for a new and bigger jail someday, he said “If the system is running efficiently, you won’t need a jail as long as I’m sheriff. If you build a jail, it won’t be under my watch.”

At the workshop, county commissioners discussed the idea of contracting for a population analysis, a criminal justice analysis and doing some long-term jail space planning. Those might be useful, but I think given the success of current programs it might be more productive to invest in deeper data analysis of all of those programs to figure out how much each individual program is contributing to the solution relative to its costs and comparing to programs in other places for possible improvements. It may be that expanding some programs would be highly cost-effective, and it may be that some current programs are working as well as they can. Only a data-driven performance based analysis will really let county leaders suss that out. 

This year state legislators are considering bills that would create statewide programs for alternative sentencing, applying continuum of care approaches to recidivism reduction, and alternatives to cash bail to better fit the punishment to the crime and find better ways to manage court appearance risks. All three are ideas that Sarasota County has pioneered successfully. It is good to see our county at the cutting edge of criminal justice reform and improving justice outcomes. 


Adrian Moore is vice president at the Reason Foundation and lives in Sarasota.


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