Sheriff seeks joint effort to relieve overcrowding at jail


Published: Wednesday, January 24, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 24, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

Overcrowding at the Alachua County jail is in a "state of grave concern" and will take the cooperation of the Sheriff's Office, the County Commission and the judicial system to solve, Sheriff Sadie Darnell said Tuesday.

Darnell, elected in November, addressed commissioners for the first time at Tuesday's meeting to request that two jail expansion measures be made a top priority. She pledged to do her part to try to solve the situation with increased space and jail alternative programs but said others must do their part as well.

"I plan to appear on a regular basis because this is a critical and chronic problem. Our current jail overcrowding is a systemwide problem. It is not — I repeat, not — my problem alone," Darnell said. "I will take ownership of my portion of that responsibility. I expect the others to do the same. I will not stand by, as some of the other criminal justice entities have done, while the Sheriff's Office and the Department of the Jail gets the sole blame."

Darnell's talk was greeted warmly by commissioners, who at times had a chilly relationship with her predecessor, Steve Oelrich. He is now the region's state senator.

Commissioners praised Darnell for her frankness and her commitment.

"It is refreshing that you appear before us in a spirit of cooperation and to state that you will be coming to the meetings to see us on a timely basis," Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut said. "I think the requests you are making are certainly within our scope."

The jail has a rated capacity of 922 inmates, but some of that space is required for special needs inmates such as the extremely violent or those with severe mental health issues, Darnell said.

On Tuesday morning the jail housed 1,053 inmates. Portable beds are placed on floors to handle the overflow.

The county has already committed money for renovations that will add 60 beds and a barracks-style addition for about 256 beds. Work is supposed to begin this year.

Darnell asked that construction of those additions be made a top priority by the county's facilities department.

Several commissioners have been pushing for alternatives to incarceration for those with minor offenses. Darnell said she also supports that.

Darnell said some in the criminal justice system benefit when people are held in jail for a long time.

"There are those within the system who have a vested interest, who actually benefit, by keeping offenders in jail as long as possible," Darnell said. "I submit to you that they have done so on the backs of the taxpayers, on the backs of the dedicated employees of the jail and perhaps most important on the backs of offenders, some of whom are being denied their freedom and their day in court because of it."

Questioned after the meeting, Darnell said that — "hypothetically" — some attorneys with high caseloads may find it easier to let their clients stay in jail until several of their cases can be handled in court at one time.

Darnell said she plans to speak with judges, attorneys, court services officials and others to learn how more inmates can be diverted from the jail.

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