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Mayor opposes task force on jail

Mayor Sandy Freedman on Wednesday threw cold water on the County Commission's plan to have a community task force study jail overcrowding and related problems plaguing the criminal justice system.

Freedman said a large task force could get bogged down and delay construction of new jail space.

"There is an immediate need for expanded local jail facilities to house current offenders," Freedman wrote in a letter to Acting Commission Chairman Ed Turanchik. She said the $33.6-million price tag for a new jail near Brandon "is excessively high" and suggested the county consider cheaper alternatives.

"Although I share your concerns, I do not believe we need to establish another committee to study the problem," Freedman wrote. "Studies have been performed by numerous state, local and non-profit organizations. . . . Obviously the problem is complex, not subject to easy solutions, but when examined in its separate parts, it becomes somewhat more manageable."

Freedman's letter came one day after State Attorney Bill James and Hillsborough Chief Judge Dennis Alvarez endorsed the county's efforts.

Freedman stopped short of saying she would not participate, and a spokesman said the mayor likely will send a representative if the commission asks.

Still, Turanchik said he was disappointed with Freedman's response.

"The mayor can do what she wants," Turanchik said. "No one is going to force anyone to participate. The response that I've gotten from the community has been very, very supportive. The train is on the track, and it's going to have a lot of passengers."

Turanchik describes this latest effort as a new way of looking at the jail problem. He wants the task force to study all the aspects of criminal justice, from juvenile crime to drug addiction to alternative sentencing.

"If you resolve that all you're going to look at is the jail," he said, "you're not doing your job."

Turanchik said he wants to expand an existing criminal justice planning committee to include a broader cross-section of the community. "Decisions imposed on high by a select committee in a back room doesn't cut it these days," he said. "It's got to be a participatory process."

Turanchik said he is surprised that a mayor who has worked so hard to involve civic groups in city government would object to a community-based effort.

But Freedman wrote that other groups already are working on the problem, and the new group "would seem too large and unwieldy, and would likely involve itself in work that's already completed."

Freedman also suggested the county consider as a model a jail Jacksonville built in six months at a third of the cost of a proposed jail near Brandon.

Meanwhile, a court hearing on the county's jail problems, originally scheduled for Oct. 20, has been rescheduled to Nov. 25 at the request of the state Department of Corrections.

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