Tom Tryon: A chance to help addicts and mentally ill
The Herald-Tribune - 6/27/2019
Jun. 27--By nature, an optimist; by trade, a skeptic. Yet despite, or perhaps because, of those traits, I believe there is a window of opportunity in Sarasota County to create a humane, cost-effective system for improving the care and treatment of people with addictions and mental illnesses -- especially for those who wind up in the county jail.
That is my conclusion based on recent events, background discussions and comments made by five key figures during a Herald-Tribune Hot Topics Forum Tuesday. The panelists: State Attorney Ed Brodsky, Public Defender Larry Eger, County Commission Chairman Charles Hines, Sheriff Tom Knight and County Judge Erika Quartermaine.
It didn't take long to ascertain that the answer to the overriding public-policy question -- Should Sarasota County build a new jail? -- is "no." Despite chronic overcrowding at the downtown Sarasota jail, the construction of a new and larger conventional facility is a nonstarter: Its price tag, exceeding $100 million, is politically unpalatable and siting is even more challenging.
Plus, there was near-total agreement on the panel that there is a better alternative -- creating a separate venue designed to provide a secure site for expanded addiction treatment and access to mental-health treatment while lowering the jail population.
Quartermaine, who has overseen treatment-focused county courts, and Knight, who has created an array of recovery "pods," said between 150 and 200 spaces are needed.
Both told compelling stories about being begged by parents and family members of young people addicted to drugs -- pleas that jail was the only safe place for them. The democratization, so to speak, of addiction epidemics -- which have ensnared not only low-income but middle- and upper-income families -- offers a unique opportunity to mobilize public support for action.
There was a consensus among the panelists, who play very different roles in the criminal-justice system, that it's time to decriminalize, in many cases, addictions and mental illnesses. There was agreement that there are humanitarian and economic reasons to do so.
Movement in this direction would be aided by political and community-based efforts to increase funding for, and raise the levels of performance and accountability of, a wide range of care providers. Some organizations locally do fine work, while others have diminished credibility; the creation of a systematic approach is warranted.
There is another reason to have some hope for progress: Knight isn't running for re-election next year and Hines faces term limits. They have a chance to lead a community-based campaign, with widespread support, to leave a legacy -- before the window of opportunity closes.
Tom Tryon is opinion editor.
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