There was a milestone at the Pasco County jail on Tuesday night. With 1,550 inmates, the facility had its highest head count ever. That's 374 more prisoners than the number of permanent beds on the first two floors of the facility.
"Is it a crisis? Yes," said Maj. Ed Beckman, "when you have 1,550 prisoners backed in an area designed to hold 1,200, there are problems."
That's why Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco wants funding to staff the now-vacant third floor of the jail, which has another 256 beds. He has been meeting individually with Pasco County commissioners to make his case, and plans to present a budget proposal May 31 seeking the funding.
Nocco also says the only way to keep up with the rising jail population is to build an annex. He said the county should make that a higher priority than building a new courthouse on the jail property in Land O'Lakes.
However, Circuit Judge W. Lowell Bray, who recently wrote a letter to Nocco offering to help address the overcrowding issue, said money allocated for the courthouse was collected specifically for that purpose and can't be used for anything else.
For years, the county has been charging a court improvement fee on each traffic ticket, and now there's about $7 million in that account. Bray said the county could sell bonds to raise as much as $20 million toward a new courthouse.
"We've been kind of hoarding that money," he said, "and all of it is specifically for the purpose of improvement of the courts."
What that means, according to County Administrator John Gallagher, is Nocco will have to go to the taxpayers if he wants to build more jail space.
"It's difficult for me to try to address the expansion without knowing specifically what they want and what they believe it'll cost," Gallagher said. "He needs to see if the citizens are willing to pay extra taxes to support it."
In his letter to Nocco, Bray offered some suggestions. He said the Sheriff's Office could re-establish a supervised pre-trial release program or take advantage of an under-utilized program called Operation Payback, in which defendants are sentenced to two days a week at a county work site instead of serving time in jail. The sheriff's website says the payback program "saves a conservative estimate of $64 each day" over the cost of housing an inmate at the jail.
Nocco wrote a response letter saying the pre-trial supervision project was eliminated because it was too large to manage with so few deputies. But he seemed open to Operation Payback: "If the courts feel that more people should be in the program, then offenders should be sentenced accordingly."
Without some kind of relief, Nocco fears, the county may have to start sending inmates to jails in other counties, which would balloon costs.
Bray said there have been instances in his 30-year career where the courts have helped alleviate jail crowding issues. For example, they could release certain prisoners under certain circumstances – cutting off the last five days of a sentence or allowing certain criminals to post bail.
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"I don't run a jail so I don't know what his situation is. They have not come to us and asked for help," he said. "In the past, they've come to us and asked for help and we've entered special orders."