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Study questions the need for a new jail

With a report in hand suggesting that a new jail might not be needed, Hillsborough County commissioners voted Wednesday to ask a judge for more time to study the issue.

The commission voted 6-1 to ask Hillsborough Chief Judge Dennis Alvarez for an extra six months to devise a plan to ease jail crowding, the second delay the county has sought this year.

Alvarez has ordered the commission to have a plan to ease crowding by August and a jail under construction by the end of the year.

The vote came after a consultant the county hired to study the jails told the commission that building more jail space is not always the answer to crowding.

"Jails are a scarce resource . . . expensive to build, even more expensive to operate," said Al Kalmanoff, executive director of the Institute for Law & Policy Planning.

The county had planned to build a $30-million to $40-million jail on Falkenburg Road near Brandon. But Kalmanoff said the projections that were the basis of those plans "were not done properly."

The county will need about 2,000 fewer jail beds in the year 2010 than the plan projected, Kalmanoff said.

The institute's study also found that many of inmates could be released without undermining public safety. Many are there because they failed to appear in court for traffic violations. Others are there because of technical violations of their probation.

Some "notorious individual cases" prompted the county to abandon a program in place in the late '80s that reduced the jail population, Kalmanoff said.

Inmates are released almost solely on their ability to bail themselves out.

"It's absolutely discriminatory," Kalmanoff said. "It discriminates between those who have money and those who don't rather than those who are dangerous and those who are not.

"People get out who shouldn't and people stay (in) who should get out. This is absolutely crucial."

About half the people in jail have not been convicted of the crime that landed them there, the study found.

The commission should restore some of the release programs and create ones that divert inmates into alcohol and drug treatment programs that are cheaper to run than jails, Kalmanoff said.

Commissioner Jan Platt, who was the dissenting vote, said the county needed more time to study Kalmanoff's ideas before asking Alvarez to delay his court order.

But Commission Chairman Ed Turanchik said Alvarez's order doesn't give the county time to study it.

The commission also voted to have the Public Safety Coordinating Council study Kalmanoff's report and recommend ways to implement it.

Kalmanoff praised the council and the Sheriff's Office for their approach to the jail problem.

"The leadership of your criminal justice system is way out ahead of us in many ways," he said.