View Full Version : Chief: Jail closing impacts public safety

09-07-2007, 06:15 PM
Chief: Jail closing impacts public safety

Sheriff's decision financially devastating to city

NORTH PORT -- Will the threat of closing of South County's Jail impact the city's budget?

"Hell yea," said North Port Police Chief Terry Lewis.

Sarasota County Sheriff William Balkwill announced Wednesday that he will be closing the South County Jail on Sept. 30, because he cannot get the $750,000 additional needed to keep it open.

"We have to maintain minimum staffing levels, and if I have an officer tied up for four or five hours, we have to bring in another officer on overtime for coverage," Lewis said.

Lewis said the police department planned its budget based on the South County Jail staying open. However, if it closes, Lewis said the department will do what must be done to maintain the staffing levels, but will have to look at creative ways to continue providing services without increasing its budget.

Overtime will increase, and calls to the police department will have to be prioritized based on the manpower it has at the time. Lewis said that some calls may not get an officer, or will have to wait longer to get one.

Veteran North Port Police officer Lt. Detective Kevin Sullivan also agrees that closing the South County Jail will have a dramatic effect on police services.

County arrest records show an average of 75 arrests made each day, or more than 27,000 a year.

South County Jail processes about 5,000 of these arrests a year, according to Lewis. The arrests come from North Port, Venice, South County deputies, and Florida Highway Patrol making arrests in the South County area.

Sullivan said that instead of a 15 minute drive to Venice, it will now become an hour or more drive to the North County Jail.

Currently, an officer who makes an arrest will drive the individual to Venice. Once there, the officer fills out or finishes the required paperwork, and turns the person and paperwork over to the jailer. The North Port officer then drives back to the city. Then the jailer takes custody of the person. If the person cannot post bail in Venice, the county will transport them up to North County within three hours.

"Instead of having two outlets to put prisoners in, now add them to just one," Sullivan said. "Instead of having one or maybe two (officers) ahead of you, the officer will not be seven or eight in line. And you have no idea what is ahead of you."

The North County Jail currently services Longboat Key, Sarasota Police Department, Sarasota County Sheriff's office, FHP, and the Department of Correction's Probation and Parole Department.

When to make an arrest might change as well. The officer has discretion when making misdemeanor arrests, Sullivan said. The officer, may for example, write a notice to appear instead of arresting the person. The officer looks at the entire situation before making the decision.

For example, Sullivan said an officer is called to a shoplifting. If the person is local, has an address, and is established in the community, he probably will get a notice to appear. If the person is from Miami with no ties to the community, the officer will make an arrest because there is a good change the shoplifter will never be seen again.

If the South County Jail closes, Sullivan said there might be changes to an officer's discretion, as manpower issues now enter the decision-making process.

"The supervisors is going to have to go over every situation (before making a decision)," Sullivan said.

North Port Commissioner Vanessa Carusone said it is not fair that the county put the city into the position to pay more for services they are already supposed to be paying for through taxes.

"(The closing of the jail) is detrimental to the financial plans of North Port and to the safety of the people," Carusone said. "The county commissioners need to bite the bullet and find the money to fund the South County Jail."

Carusone said the county has reserve funds, or capital improvement projects in North County that can be put on hold.

"(The county commissioners) say they are not biased against South County, and now is the time to prove it," Carusone said. "We are not talking about the county finding millions and millions of dollars to keep the local jail open."

Carusone said that she doesn't know what options the city can look at for alternative until the county decides what they want to do. She did say Rob Robinson, attorney for the city, will need to be involved.

"What irks me is this comes so late in the budget process, this is also unfair to North Port and Venice residents," Carusone said.

Lewis said he's not giving up.

"It will effect our level of service, but it's not over," Lewis said, adding he and some officers plan on speaking at the Sarasota County Commission meeting on Monday night.

You can e-mail George McGinn at gmcginn@sun-herald.com.


Staff Writer