County official seeks reforms to cut inmate population

Rising costs at the crowded and crumbling St. Lucie County Jail prompted County Administrator Howard Tipton to propose overhauling the local justice system in an effort to slash the inmate population.

“There is no upside to a high jail population,” Tipton told the county commissioners last week during their annual budget briefing. “It’s a huge liability for us for a number of reasons.”

Tipton suggested a variety of systemic reforms, such as making fewer arrests for petty offenses, releasing more inmates through the pretrial program and reducing bail amounts, among other initiatives.

Commissioner Cathy Town-send agreed to work with the other members of the county Public Safety Coordinating Council to develop new strategies for reducing the jail population.

The council’s next meeting is July 25. It is made up of the 19th Judicial Circuit’s chief judge, state attorney, public defender and court administrator, as well as the sheriff and other agency representatives.

St. Lucie County spends about $90 per day to house and feed an inmate at the jail, records show.

That doesn’t include inmate medical costs, which are expected to reach $4.7 million in the upcoming year and continue rising in the future.

The county jail has a capacity of 1,370 and the inmate population was 1,359 as of July 11, said Sheriff Ken Mascara.

A jail is considered overpopulated at 85 percent occupancy because of different inmate classifications based on the severity of their criminal charges, gender, age and health issues.

That number is 1,165 for the county jail.

St. Lucie County’s overall population to jail inmate ratio is much higher than nearby Brevard, Osceola and Orange counties, records show. For example, Orange County has four times as many residents as St. Lucie County, but only twice as many jail inmates.

Mascara requested $37.2 million for detention expenses for the upcoming year, an increase of nearly $2.3 million, or 6.5 percent compared to the current year.

The sheriff’s overall budget request for 2019-2020 was $86 million, an increase of $1 million, or 1.2 percent compared to the current year.

The Sheriff’s Office’s annual budget increased by more than $26 million, nearly 44 percent, since the recent low of $60 million in 2011-2012, records show.

The original jail was built in 1987 to house 536 inmates and several wings were later added, Mascara said. However, the original kitchen, laundry and medical facilities were never expanded to meet the needs of the larger population.

The Sheriff’s Office stopped arresting people found in possession of small amounts of marijuana this year and started issuing notices to appear in court, Chief Deputy Garry Wilson told the commissioners.

Toby Long, the Sheriff’s Office’s professional services director, encouraged the commissioners to pursue improvements to the county’s Pre-Trial Release Program.

“If we look at other counties that have pre-trial programs, they’ve got more people in pre-trial than they have in the jail, which is not what we have here,” Long said.

“There are some costs up front, no doubt about it, but down the road it’s a money saver if you get a good pre-trial program in place,” Long said. “You’ve got to have all the players willing to play.”

The county anticipates spending $1.4 million at the county jail in the upcoming year for a new roof, a new air conditioning chiller unit, new sewer lines, weather proofing, painting and a variety of other repairs.

In addition to rising medical costs at the jail, inmate hospital bills spiked this year and are likely to exceed the $3.2 million budget, county records show.

Any money spent on the jail takes away money from more productive uses, such as building and maintaining county facilities, Tipton said.

“There’s nothing more frustrating than spending money on inmate medical costs when so many needs are out there,” Tipton told the commissioners.

In addition, three inmates died at the jail in the last 12 months.

“The biggest risk factor you have is the higher inmate population,” Tipton told the commissioners. “As long as you have that, you’re rolling the dice that something is going to happen.”

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