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Sunday, Apr 20, 2014
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Jackson: Sheriff tries to budget for crime

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TRINITY The conventional wisdom about what fuels crime isn’t necessarily accurate. And because of that, says Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco, we are in for a rude and expensive reckoning.

Before we wander too deeply into the psychosis of scofflaw behavior according to Nocco, we are obliged to acknowledge the sheriff is bracing for a summer of steamy budget negotiations with county commissioners and, presumably, a new county administrator.

Although what he’s seeking — a $6.24 million hike — may not be unusual in terms of opening bids, getting to a budget deal with that sort of increase intact would be unprecedented.

But, hey, Nocco is an ex-college football player who grew up in the Northeast, and among men of such pedigree, it’s practically stamped in their pedigree that late spring is the time of year they make bold predictions.

So it is with Nocco, who says the dollars in his budget proposal are going to get spent. The only question is when. Meeting individually with commissioners ahead of Friday’s rollout, “I’ve been telling them, ‘You can pay me now, or you can pay me later.’?”

Here’s why: We think, having grown up instructed by the sad tale of Hugo’s Jean Valjean and his life-changing theft of a loaf of bread, that bad times and desperate want trigger scofflaw activity. But if that were entirely accurate, crime would have surged during the recent Great Recession and our subsequent slow recovery.

Instead, in Pasco and in Florida, overall crime rates have been slipping, led by decreases in the very property offenses — theft, burglary, car break-ins, stolen cars and the like — that refute our Jean Valjean concept of the criminal mind.

It’s not so much the desire for somebody else’s stuff that drives crime, says Nocco, but opportunity. And history suggests a resurgence in certain sectors of the economy — especially construction, their sites littered with so much that is easily fenced or converted to cash at recycling centers — will be closely trailed by reinvigorated criminal activity.

Assuming the accuracy of projections found in the rearview mirror, Pasco’s commissioners resist the increase sought by Nocco at their constituents’ peril.

Remember the most recent election season? Nocco does. “We said Pasco was going to get a reputation among bad guys in the Bay area,” he says, “that if you did something wrong here, you were going to get arrested, and you were going to wind up in jail.”

With deputies and detectives delivering on Nocco’s tough-on-crime campaign vow, Pasco’s jail population recently hit a record high 1,550 inmates. That’s the good news. The bad news is the Land O’ Lakes Jail has a capacity of 1,432.

The county is going to have to do something about that, by relaxing the rules on supervised release, creating a hybrid work-release program (both of which have problems of their own), shipping inmates to jails in neighboring counties (which can be expensive) or — and this is Nocco’s preference — by finding $1.86 million to staff the jail’s finished but unoccupied third floor.

OK, there is another alternative, one that has the advantage of being incredibly cheap. The sheriff could switch to a catch-and-release policy in which deputies hand out stern admonishments to first offenders and, for recidivists, severe threats that they’re going to be sorry one day.

Or deputies could go on about the business of taking bad actors off Pasco’s streets, an activity designed to enhance the quality of life among the law-abiding majority, in which case something’s got to give.

By statute, the jail is the county’s responsibility. Pasco has a tradition of delegating its operation to the sheriff, and this one, like his predecessors, says he is happy to fulfill the obligation.

Indeed, he’s made and continues to make changes that stretch the county’s dollars. Privatizing meal service was a money-saver. It also may make sense to privatize inmate medical care. And Nocco also plans to put civilians in the control center (home to remote door operations and surveillance cameras), freeing more expensive sworn officers to patrol among the inmates.

Still, no one ever hears that a sheriff is promoting a budget increase without thinking “power grab” or “empire building” and that’s bound to be the case here. After all, he wants about $900,000 for a fleet of new Ford Fusions for detectives, because the cars they have have been known to break down on the way to crime scenes.

And there’s other stuff about the cost of raises, pension mandates from the Legislature, and a curious new 12-cents-per-gallon surcharge on gas bought from the county, the upshot of which is like taking money from your right pocket to put it in your left.

Last November, voters hired Nocco to do a job, and using prisoner heads in beds as a barometer, he’s doing it well. If that means the third floor of the jail needs opening, then Pasco policymakers must figure out how to make it happen.


email: tjackson@tampatrib.com

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