Jail: Black Hole of Escambia County Budget (update)

For the past two months, Escambia County Commissioner Doug Underhill has decried a projected $9-million shortfall in the county’s FY 2018 budget. The problem isn’t the Century Chamber of Commerce, Gulf Coast African American Chamber, Escambia County Area Transit or FloridaWest Economic Development Alliance.

No, the black hole that is sucking up all the increases in county revenues over the past four years is the Escambia County Jail, and until the Board of County Commissioners works out with all the other stakeholders a way to better manage its criminal justice system the county’s detention department will continue to suffocate county government.

When the Sheriff David Morgan last ran the Escambia County Jail in 2013, his budget for the jail was $28.3 million. In June 2013, Morgan and the BCC reached an impasse over how to respond to DOJ investigation of jail operations and the county took over detention operations, effective Oct. 1, 2013.

The FY 2018 budget shows $40.8 million for detention – a $12.5 million jump over FY 2013, a 44-percent increase.

To blame the unprecedented budget jump on the April 2014 jail explosion or the cost of housing 200 prisoners in Walton County would be taking a simplistic approach to a much more complex issue that requires cooperation and collaboration between the county, local judges, state attorney’s office, sheriff’s office, Pensacola Police, public defender’s office and even the health department.

Yesterday, I sat down with Assistant County Administrator Amy Lovoy and Corrections Financial Manager Whitney Lucas to review the causes of the huge budget increase.

During the last year that Sheriff Morgan ran the county jail, the average daily census was 1,351 prisoners. On Monday, July 10, the county’s detention facilities handled 1,581 men and women, a 17-percent increase over the Morgan era. The prisoners are spread over five facilities, including Walton County’s jail.

The main jail, often referred to as “Castle Grayskull,” was built in the mid-1980s to house 798 inmates. On July 10, the facility had 1,011 prisoners crammed into its cells.

Lucas pointed out that today’s prisoners have significantly more costly health issues than four years ago. The number of prescriptions for HIV-infected prisoners have increased 39-percent since FY 2014, but the costs of those medications have jumped 188-percent over the same period.

“In May 2017 alone, HIV medications accounted for 2-percent of our prescriptions and 68-percent, $112,226, of the prescription expenditures, and that’s just one month,” said Lucas. “For the 2015 calendar year, we had 10 inmates requiring dialysis. We have had 390 dialysis treatments this year at the cost of $650 per treatment.”

The county has little control over the number of prisoners in its detention system. Over 70-percent of the inmate population is awaiting trial – about 7 percent are in jail on bonds of $1,000 or less. If we could keep the prisoners awaiting trial for petty crimes out of jail and in other programs, the taxpayers wouldn’t have to pay for their medical care and other needs.

“Most of our sick prisoners would qualify for Medicaid or Medicare to pay for their prescriptions, dialysis and hospital care,” said Lovoy, “but they lose federal coverage when they’re in jail. The county taxpayers pick up the medical bills.”

For Escambia County to rein in its detention costs, all the stakeholders need to be at the table to hammer out solutions. The sheriff’s office, PPD, judges, state attorney’s office, public defenders, and the county health department need to sit down with county officials and see what can be done.

Lovoy said, “All parties need to come together and address the county’s corrections issues. No one entity can successfully tackle it alone.

The question is: Can all stakeholders put their egos aside and work together to manage Escambia County’s criminal justice system?

This dysfunction is costly.

Update: We received a clarification on Tuesday night regarding the dialysis treatments of prisoners. The  county had 390 dialysis treatments  for the entire year, not 390 patients as initially reported.

From: “Joy A. Tsubooka”
Subject: Jail Story
Date: July 11, 2017 at 9:53:13 PM CDT
To: Rick Outzen
Can you correct this statement for us?
“For the 2015 calendar year, we had 10 inmates requiring dialysis. We currently have 390 inmates on dialysis at the cost of $650 per treatment.”
I should be patients needing 390 treatments this year.
Whitney says sorry for the confusion, she should have clarified better. As you know, one patient needs multiple treatments and she switched counters instead of giving you apples to apples.
Thank you!
Joy Tsubooka
Community & Media Relations Manager

Update: On Wednesday morning, we sought clarification of the percentage of prisoners in jail with bonds of $1,000 or less after a reader told us that some prisoners may have a $500 bond for a lesser crime, such as pot possession, but also have a much larger bond for another offense.

The number of prisoners on a single bond of $1000 or less is 77 or 7 percent.


5 thoughts on “Jail: Black Hole of Escambia County Budget (update)

  1. Instead of building a new jail. Why not build a drug rehabilitation center. Something like 80% of the people incarcerated in Escambia County are there because of an addiction problem. It would also be considerably cheaper. Let’s help these poor souls instead of wanting to punish them. Addiction is an illness not a crime. This is just one more example of unintended consequences. that the War on Drugs is a complete and total failure.

  2. Rick Outzen July 11, 2017 at 12:38 pm

    We know the price tag of the current system – $40.8 million. Is that the best use of your tax dollars?

    Actually the price tag is a lot higher when you add in the cost of the Sheriffs Office, Court System, sentencing programs, including community control and probation. An awful lot of money is squandered on these repeat offenders. The most effective way to deal with the issue, is a quick dose of lead poisoning with a bullet to the back of the head. Its guaranteed to take the desire to commit crimes right out of these offenders.

    Electing to release offenders just because it may reduce jail cost IS NOT the answer. What no one is calculating is the cost to law-abiding citizens who are forced to replace damaged or stolen property, increases in prices due to thefts, increases in insurance cost due to insured losses, the continued increases in funding all of the criminal justice wheels as criminals continue to seek the easy money at the expense of others.

    The courts have become so soft on the criminal, that time spent in jail or prison is just a cost of doing business and is often viewed as their vacation. There is nothing you or I can do to change the criminal thinking pattern, until such time as the criminal is willing to make the change. You know, its the old saying “You can lead a horse to water but you cant make it drink”. The criminal is the same way; – – fines, probation, community control, jail time, state prison time and the criminal just continues being a criminal. At some point a lawful society needs to determine that some folks no longer deserve to be part of a lawful society and permanently remove them. For less than buck the cost of dealing with inmates can be greatly reduced.

  3. We know the price tag of the current system – $40.8 million. Is that the best use of your tax dollars?

  4. The County has programs in place to address those with low bonds in an effort to assist their release from custody. However, so many of those with “low bonds” wont qualify due to their history of “failure to appear” in court when out on bond. Others have no permanent address or cant find anyone willing to co-sign the bond and help keep the offender out of trouble and/or to ensure the arrestee shows up in court on their scheduled court date.

    Florida Statute outlines who can receive “arrest citations” and who qualifies for “ROR” (Release on Recognizance) or “PTR” (Pre-Trial Release). Unless a Judge mandates the release, the County and all of its programs are bound by other statutory requirements or other self-imposed (ie: “Common Sense” requirements).

    As law abiding citizens, do we really want to play catch and release time and again with those who have shown they aren’t willing to be law-abiding citizens of our community? Who refuse to accept responsibility and at least show up in court to defend their actions that resulted in arrest?

  5. One smart move might be for the County to work with an outside agency to post the bonds of low-risk offenders with strong ties to the community . Even if that initiative only reduced the jail population by ten percent – and some prisoners might prefer to stay in jail where they can sleep inside, are fed and get medical care – it would be a significant decrease.

    I have several times heard Commissioner Doug Underhill make a comment that I find shocking. He has expressed concern that when the new jail is built, it will already be too small for the projected jail population. If true, why would the County do that? I guess we have all just assumed that the County has data to project its jail population out through the lifespan of the new jail and that the jail built will be designed to hold the number of projected prisoners.

    By the way, did anyone ever figure out how the actions and inactions of the County Commission and the county staff set in motion the sequence of events leading to the destruction of the jail? Even very recently, a person called into Sheriff Morgan’s BLAB-TV show and they discussed the jail. Morgan seemed to rightly pin the blame on the County for ignoring his recommendations, doing so in a childish manner as I recall. We still need some political accountability.

    Perhaps the Inweekly can do a follow-up story on the jail explosion to tell us what we have learned as a result of the legal settlements. Two of the Commissioners, Grover Robinson and Lumon May, played a role in the jail mess and both have said they want to be Mayor. For all his faults, at least Ashton Hayward did not blow up the jail, as far as we know.

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