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Flagler Sheriff and County Officials Worry That Prison Reforms Could Shift Inmates,
and Costs, to County

| February 19, 2018

Sheriff Rick Staly, right, described the likely financial impact of a shift in inmates from the state back to the counties, during a meeting of the Public Safety Coordinating Council last week. Steve Cole, who oversees the local jail, is to his right, with County Judge Melissa Moore-Stens in the foreground. (© FlaglerLive)

Sheriff Rick Staly, right, described the likely financial impact of a shift in inmates from the state back to the counties, during a meeting of the Public Safety Coordinating Council last week. Steve Cole, who oversees the local jail, is to his right, with County Judge Melissa Moore-Stens in the foreground. (© FlaglerLive)

A spate of criminal-justice reform bills making their way through the Florida Senate has Flagler County officials, and particularly the sheriff and a county commissioner, worried about what that could mean for the local jail population, which could increase significantly and add to the financial burdens of local government.

The bills are intended to reform the system so as to diminish the state prison population, bring some inmates closer to their home counties, and lessen the harshness of some sentences, including for drug offenders and thieves.

Senate Bill 484, which has cleared three committees without a single dissenting vote, would increase the minimum time an offender may serve at a local jail instead of state prison from one year to two. Those inmates would remain the county’s responsibility. The measure would also  give the state prison system authority to contract with local jail administrators to return terminally ill prisoners to their home county’s jail, and to return inmates with less than two years left on their sentence also back to county jail, though in those cases the inmates would still be considered state prisoners and the state, not the county, would pay the bills, but only at a rate of around $60 a day.

Senate Bill 928, which has cleared two committees and with a bit more opposition, would raise the threshold for grand theft from a stolen value of $300, as it is currently, to $1,500. Once an offender crosses that threshold, he or she faces a felony and possible prison time. By raising the threshold, the offense more often would likely remain a misdemeanor, and the offender would serve out misdemeanor jail time, at the local jail.

Senate Bill 694, which has easily cleared three committees, would allow judges to reduce minimum mandatory sentences for certain, non-violent drug offenders.

In all three cases, the local jail population would likely increase as a result since inmates who would have previously been eligible for prison time would see their sentences downgraded or made eligible for local jail incarceration instead.

Add to that a proposed constitutional amendment that would increase the homestead exemption from $50,000 to $75,000 (but not on the portion owed schools), thus robbing local government revenue of millions of dollars–the current estimate for Flagler government would be a loss of $4 million, and for Palm Coast, $1.6 to $1.7 million, according to Flagler Property Appraiser Jay Gardner–and local governments would be facing what Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly calls a double-whammy.

“This in my opinion,” Staly said, “is nothing but an attempt for the state to push their costs to local government under the disguise that sentencing to a county jail is better than prison, which might have some merit, quite frankly, but I think the real motive is the shift, the cost to the county. And it’s not just the housing of the inmates. It’s the medical, and it’s everything else that comes with this.”

Volusia County Councilwoman Heather Post says the state is trying to diminish local control while increasing financial burdens on local governments. (© FlaglerLive)

Volusia County Councilwoman Heather Post says the state is trying to diminish local control while increasing financial burdens on local governments. (© FlaglerLive)

Staly addressed the issue last week at a meeting of Flagler’s Public Safety Coordinating Council, which gathers the county’s law enforcement, criminal justice, county government and social service agencies once a month to take stock of issues of common concern. Local judges routinely attend the meetings,a s did County Judge Melissa Moore-Stens Wednesday: her court, already overburdened, would see more activity as a result of some of the bills should they pass.

The council heard a brief presentation from Volusia County Councilwoman Heather Post, who also sits on her county’s public safety council and sits on the state board of directors of the Florida Association of Counties. She’d been tracking the bills of concern to local law enforcement and the court system.

“That could have devastating effects obviously on our funding,” Post said.

One caveat: the bills have only faint echoes in the House, but Post fears the bill doubling county jail-eligible time to 24 months could end up being slipped through as an amendment in the House, outside of committee hearings.

“That would be a significant paradigm shift for us,” County Commissioner Nate McLaughlin, who chairs the public safety council, said, noting that the relatively new Flagler jail expansion was designed for the present context, with diversionary programs and a relatively low, and stable, jail population. “The recommendation for us was to build 500 and some odd beds, we built 273 simply because of that 364 and the diversion programs and things such as that.” The Senate proposals risk erasing those means of keeping the jail population low.

Proponents of the reform bills argue that the state prison system, which has 96,000 inmates, at a cost of $2.4 billion a year, has itself become overburdened with too many inmates who don;t fit the profile of hardened felons, including an aging population and the sort of drug offenders who end up serving long sentences more because of mandatory rules than because they themselves have committed terrible crimes: one example is that of the cancer patient who falsified hydrocodone prescriptions for pain management but ended up sentenced to 15 years.

The reforms have managed to ally conservatives and liberals in mirror alliances seen in several other states that have managed to reduce their prison populations. But because of Florida’s local government funding structure, the inevitable result of such reforms in this state would be another unfunded mandate for local governments.

The state, Post told the council, is amining  “to pull away the rights of local governments and our home rule and shift it all to the state level. On the other side, doing everything they can to shift the funding and the budgeting down to our level, so that they’re not paying for things.”  

A week earlier the state’s sheriffs met, with Staly present, and opposed some of those bills. Staly said there may be merit to some of the approaches, but regarding the proposals that would shift prisoners back to the county, Staly said it’s a problem if those who would otherwise have been considered state prisoners become the financial responsibility of the county. He would have less of a problem with the approach if the inmate’s designation kept that inmate a state prisoner, even while housed at the local jail.

“If they don’t go to state prison and they go to a county jail, the state says they’re not a state prisoner, and therefore the medical costs are ours,” Staly said. “What the sheriffs advocated in our meeting was,  they tried to get language changed, that they would at least still be DOC inmates,” DOC being the state Department of Corrections, “DOC would pay the county to house them locally, but if a medical issue came up or he became an unruly prisoner or something like that, we would then have the authority to say we don’t want this prisoner anymore, they’re yours, and the state would still be responsible for the medical.”

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11 Responses for “Flagler Sheriff and County Officials Worry That Prison Reforms Could Shift Inmates,
and Costs, to County”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Stop taking people to jail for BS crimes. Far too often I have heard FCSO officers say “work it out in court” which means they take people to jail whether they know the person is deserving of going and according to the docketing there are inmates that go for misdemeanor minor crimes when there is no need for that when noticing them of a court date is sufficient. Our court system is just about as bad, they drag cases on and on and fill the docket up with cases making it look like they are working them selves to death when it is just the opposite. We don’t need more Judge’s-we need Judges to get to work and get the work done without all the goofing around.There are inmates in there with high bonds without justification…..Flagler County is notorious for placing bond on individuals that is not uniform and consistent. I guess now Staly will have to stop the ridiculous advertising for the “Green Roof Inn” when this is something that shouldn’t be joked about. Instead of wrapping or painting patrol cars with TAXI/SHERIFF, radio commercials, and other nonsense waste-use that money for something constructive. There is so much waste here in Flagler County… is time to tighten your belts. Raising our taxes is not an option when we know they have already been raised and home values have increased—seems like it’s never enough for local government. It is about time our legislators have woken up and are taking some control away from local government—local government is a train wreck!

  2. Disbeliever says:

    Just what we need, Senate Bill 694, making it easier for judges to go easier on druggies so they can go out and kill more people when they get behind the wheel or push their drugs. The judicial system is already letting these people off the hook and is already responsible in part for killing innocents, causing the abuse of others, and changing lives forever. Just look at some of the more notorious cases right in Volusia and Flagler Counties, indeed, even around the entire state, over the past few years.Tallahassee strikes again.

  3. Mark says:

    Build a prison in each county for long term prisoners.

  4. Smoke In Mirrors says:

    Oh, so its not about protecting the public at all cost? You mean to tell me its about $$$$$? Well golly! OK, lets be real about this. This is what its always been about. Feds, fund the states, the states fund the counties cities and townships. This was all in effort to keep being able to warehouse people, some deserving, some not. So now the Fed budget realizes prisons are costing more then they’re making. Only thing to do is usher in new a modified kind of prison reform and incarceration. Do you know what it is? Home confinement, and pressers like this are the primer for it. Ankle monitors and 24 hour electronic supervision paid for by our taxes. Whole neighborhoods will end up like Kirk Russell’s movie “Escape From NY”. The problem is people who make minor mistakes will be pushed into electronic supervision

  5. homestead confused says:

    Homestead exemption from 50,000 to 75,000???? I only get a 25,000 exemption. What happened to the rest?

    • FlaglerLive says:

      If you pay county and city taxes and the assessed value of your home exceeds $50,000, you should see that $50,000 exemption on your tax bill in so far as non-school taxes are concerned. Only a $25,000 exemption applies to school taxes. That would not change should the exemption amount rise to $75,000.

  6. Dave says:

    Long overdue!! It’s about time we stopped filling our jails and prisons with non violent offenders!! GOOD JOB FLORIDA!! Keep it up!!

  7. Peaches McGee says:

    The prison reforms are already active in California.

  8. Dave says:

    Much needed ,long overdue!!

  9. Hunter says:

    To (Disbelievers) some of those “Druggies” as you call them include the many senior citizens that fill themselves up on $1 Martinis and Old Fashions at the many social clubs on Old Kings Road, AKA Drunk Ave. All the while popping heart and blood pressure medication, then getting in their living room in wheels with their box of kleenex in the back window and their handicap placard hanging in the front window, which in itself is dangerous and pretty sure against the law, only to pull out onto Old Kings like they have an 18 wheeler and drive against oncoming traffic. I’ve been driving down that road since 1977 and it happens over and over. Personally I think drivers over a certain age should be required to take a PHYSICAL driving test, especially after strokes and the likes. When my grandmother turned 80 we pulled her license and moved her in with me, if only to prevent her from killing someone. I’m tired of some of these people in Palm Coast wagging their finger at any and everyone that isn’t their age. Also, there are tons more accidents from alcohol opposed to drugs. Do your research before you hop on that high horse of yours.

  10. palmcoaster says:

    OMG..more leniency yet that we have now? These dangerous addicted felons among us never stop they get bailed out for dealing and abusing drugs, shop lifting, violence, weapons, driving with suspended license…and caught speeding and still you guys here want more leniency? Our sheriff is doing a good work then the court sets up bail and lets them start allover again. We endure this day in and day out in our block. Their wrap sheet goes on for years and they are still out for committing the same crimes allover again….and now the new fashion is for these wealthy dudes to bail them our for their in home services whether all young in their 20’s females or males addicted and we have to endure the dangerous traffic in and out!

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