Sheriff considering closing south county jail to cut costs

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SARASOTA COUNTY - As a potential cost cutting move, Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight is thinking about closing the South County Jail. It could have a major impact on not only his department, but also North Port, Venice, and others.

Crime is down and fewer people are being brought to the South County Holding Jail on East Venice Avenue. The sheriff says it may no longer be cost efficient, but other local agencies say it will take valuable time from officers by having to travel to the northern part of the county to drop prisoners off there.

People arrested in south Sarasota County are typically brought to one of the four holding cells at the facility. Every eight hours a van delivers prisoners to the main jail in downtown Sarasota.

"Is this something still needed? We are very much like private business; we are always looking at efficiencies -- where the money is at and where it is going," says Sheriff Knight. He says there are liability concerns: no medical provider, no meals, none of the high tech scanning equipment they have at the main jail.

By the way it costs a little more than a million dollars annually to staff and run it. "There are a lot of things that go through my mind. Really, for $1.1 million you can buy a whole lot of gas."

The extra fuel and time will affect not only sheriff's deputies, but also officers coming from police departments in North Port and Venice, says Venice Police Chief Tom McNulty. "Obviously it's a convenience ,but it is more than that. It allows us to bring in prisoners and have them processed and get officers back on the road where they should be."

After travel time, the longer drive would mean an extra hour off the street per arrest.

The sheriff says the good news is there are less of those. "The best reason it is not needed today is crime is way down," says Knight.

Five years ago, nearly 4,000 were brought to the facility. Now it's around 2,500. On average, the sheriff's office brings four prisoners per day; North Port Police bring two, and Venice brings fewer than one.

“I hope that crime trends always stay down, but you can never predict what that element of society is going to do."

Venice's mayor recently questioned why city residents pay the same as those who live in the unincorporated areas for the sheriff's office, despite doing their own patrolling.

Sheriff Knight says this isn't about that. “I can assure you there is no punishment to the city of Venice. I don't operate that way. If anyone is impacted, if I decide to shut that down, it would be the sheriff's office more than any other agency."

"I am going to stay away from the political forum. Right now the best operational value I think is to have the jail right here in Venice," says Chief McNulty.

He says at the same time he will support the Sheriff's decision, and if the jail is closed they'll find a way to make it work.

Sheriff Knight says they'll continue to take a look. North Port's police chief is also quoted as saying he would like to see the facility open. The drive from North Port to downtown Sarasota even longer than the one from Venice.