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Pinellas County Jail boosts revenue by housing federal defendants

The Pinellas County Jail — dangerously overcrowded just last year — now has enough extra room that it expects to make $4.1-million this year by bunking federal defendants.

That's good news, but not good enough to save the jobs of 24 detention deputies laid off this week because of budget cuts.

Leaving a County Commission meeting Tuesday, Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats said he and his staff will "go back and probably start trying to find jobs for these folks" laid off Monday.

And Coats expects 150 more sheriff's employees to leave through regular departures and attrition.

"We're in bad shape now, but we'd be in worse shape if it wasn't for this contract," Coats said.

For the past two months, the Sheriff's Office has had a contract with the U.S. Marshals Service to house up to 200 inmates awaiting trial on federal charges. In May alone, the contract earned the agency nearly $400,000.

The federal government pays the Sheriff's Office $79.40 per day for each federal defendant held at the jail. Because the jail's fixed costs, such as beds and guards, are already set, the additional cost to the jail for each federal inmate amounts to just $4 per day for meals.

That means the Sheriff's Office nets more than $75 per day for each federal inmate.

This is a dramatic turnaround from early 2007, when the jail could barely house its own inmates safely. At that time, inmates slept on cots on the floor in overcrowded pods, and attacks on jail staff had jumped 82 percent in a year.

Coats said a number of factors caused the crush of inmates, documented by a Times reporter who lived in pod G-5 for two days. They included:

• A zero-tolerance policy, established by probation officers after the death of 11-year-old Carlie Brucia of Sarasota by a man on probation. The change jailed many probationers on technical violations.

• Backlogs caused by inmates who were being held on minor charges.

• Insufficient space caused by a lack of funding for new jail facilities.

At its worst, the jail routinely held 1,400 more inmates than it was designed to house.

But over the past 18 months, three things created new capacity and eased overcrowding.

In April 2007, then-Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Chief Judge David Demers signed an order allowing the release of inmates accused of misdemeanors and local ordinance violations.

"We gave the sheriff a plan for staged release when there was a crisis," Demers said. "To my knowledge, it's working well."

The order also allowed Coats to monitor offenders through ankle bracelets and encouraged public defenders to meet with clients as soon as possible to expedite cases.

Later, the opening of a state-of-the-art medical wing and the conversion of a former county bus garage into an inmate annex added nearly 700 beds to the jail.

The 432-bed medical wing cost $35.4-million and opened in July. The 256-bed annex cost $3-million and opened in January.

The result: The jail has 4,100 beds, and about 3,600 of them are filled, creating room for federal defendants. On Monday, for example, the jail had 189 federal detainees and made about $14,250.

And that revenue could go up. Coats said the jail hopes a federal audit will result in the per-diem rate being raised to $90 per inmate. That's near the county's costs — for facilities, personnel, maintenance, medical care and meals — of housing a county inmate for a day.

The federal inmates come from all over the U.S. Middle District of Florida and are brought in by the FBI, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Stays vary, Coats said, but average 26 days.

The contract with the U.S. Marshals Service started in April and couldn't have come at a better time, Coats said. With a statewide financial crisis, the new revenue source is crucial for a department facing a potential budget decrease of about $25-million.

Coats has proposed a budget of nearly $261-million for 2008-09. That's about 10 percent less than this year.

On Tuesday, county commissioners told the sheriff they couldn't restore about $2.7-million for programs including life-skills training at the jail, DUI and traffic enforcement, and community policing deputies.

"The money is not there," Commissioner Calvin Harris said.

Coats said he expects to decide how many more employees to cut by the end of the week.

The county's master plan for the jail anticipates a need for additional facilities in the future, but Coats said there isn't a time line in place for further expansion. The plan says the jail is expected to have 4,600 inmates in 2015.

"We hope that doesn't happen," Coats said.

But with cuts to life-skills programs, he said he may not be able to stave off an increasing inmate population.

Pinellas County Jail boosts revenue by housing federal defendants 06/17/08 [Last modified: Thursday, June 19, 2008 9:39am]
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