County jail seeks funding to curb overcrowding
Published: Sunday, August 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, August 1, 2004 at 12:04 a.m.
More than a year after an alleged sexual assault at the Alachua County jail prompted stricter scrutiny of the number of inmates housed at the facility, spiking population numbers have continued. Indeed the average number of inmates has once again risen to more than 900 in recent months.
The average number of inmates dropped into the 700s and 800s late last year and this year, according to the Alachua County Sheriff's Office. Then in April, May and June the number rose into the 900s before dropping into the mid-800s again last month..
Last year, two jail officers were fired and others were disciplined amid allegations they ignored supervision policies at the jail that enabled an inmate with a violent criminal history to sexually assault a University of Florida student serving a weekend sentence for marijuana possession in June 2003.
The case against the accused inmate, Randolph Jackson, 36, who now is charged with molesting other prisoners at the jail, is pending with a tentative trial date set for October.
Although not considered the main factor behind the incident, overcrowding also was cited in the case. Too many people in one area pose a tougher control issue for staff, said Alachua County Sheriff Steve Oelrich, who oversees the jail.
Both local officers and court officials say they are conscious of the jail crowding issue when making arrests or deciding if a defendant can be released from the jail on bond. But some changes that could help reduce the number of inmates at the jail and have been recommended since the attack haven't occurred because they require funding.
Officers also say there's only so much they can do to help reduce the jail numbers.
Gainesville Police, for example, have assessed their policies determining when to make an arrest or instead issue a notice to appear in court. But Capt. Ed Van Winkle said they found those policies effective and determined they didn't need to be changed.
"The police department's point of view is some people need to go to jail," Van Winkle said.
Some in law enforcement say it may be unavoidable to consider jail renovation or expansion.
"It didn't happen in a month. It's happened over several years," said Oelrich about the jail's population.
The area's growth and "less tolerance for crime in our community," reflected in new laws and post-9-11 security concerns, are factors affecting how many people are held at the jail, he said.
"We need to have a facility that keeps up with the growth of the community," Oelrich said.
The Sheriff's Office is seeking funding this year from the county for 60 new beds at jail, which would be created by renovating existing space at the building.
That request likely will be competing for funding this year with a proposal that would expand alternative incarceration and court programs that could divert some people from the jail.
The idea of enhancing these programs has support, both from a study by the National Institute of Corrections and the Jail Assessment and Recommendations Task Force or JART, made up of representatives from the area's court system, the county and law enforcement agencies. Each has suggested broadening services that work with people charged with lesser, nonviolent offenses.
A proposal from JART includes expanding electronic monitoring, day reporting, community service work crews, Drug Court and work release, as well as providing substance abuse treatment in the work release program.
The suggestion to augment these programs is an attempt to target and reduce the number of specific groups at the jail - those facing charges or already sentenced for drug offenses and violation of probation.
Circuit Judge Larry Turner, who chairs JART, has not waded into the pending debate in the county over funding for the additional beds at the jail or the diversionary court programs.
But, Turner said, as a general principle, he does support having more programs and fewer jail cells.
"A lot of the crime we see is good people doing stupid things as opposed to bad people doing bad things," he said. "We, the criminal justice system, tend to think in terms of 'You did the crime - you do the time.' We're not very creative once we get to how one might be punished for doing the time."
Bill Davis, who is running against Oelrich to become the county's sheriff, said law enforcement in general cannot control how many people end up in the jail since arrests aren't the only factor behind who is ends up in the facility.
But before deciding on spending money for new beds at the jail or alternative programs, Davis said county officials will have to look at how much money the jail is getting and how it's being used.
Lise Fisher can be reached at (352) 374-5092 or fisherl@ gvillesun.com.
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