MANATEE -- The Manatee County Supervised Release unit is a cut above the rest, according to Jennifer Burgh, probation services manager.
On Tuesday, Manatee County became the seventh local government to receive accreditation through the Florida Corrections Accreditation Commission.
"It is a standard of excellence," Burgh said. "It is a process that makes our work more efficient, fair and consistent. The same things are done for each and every person that comes through the office."
For the past two years, the Supervised Release program has been working toward receiving this accreditation, which Burgh called "very special." The unit must be reaccredited every three years.
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"It was nice to have a governing body, the commission, say here are the things we feel are really important," Burgh said. "It definitely helps with accountability and assuring everything is done the same. It is a standard that keeps us a cut above."
The Supervised Release unit, a low-cost alternative to jail, keeps people who have been charged but not convicted out of jail when they can't afford to post bond, and lowers the inmate population in county jails. Some people may be innocent, Burgh added.
"It is exceedingly important because without supervised release those who are low risk or unable to post a bond remain in jail," Burgh said. "The taxpayers have to foot the bill for that."
In 1985, Manatee County became one of the first counties in the state with a supervised release program, Burgh said, adding she is surprised more counties don't have a program. Of 67 Florida counties, 27 have pretrial programs.
"If they are monitored in the community rather than sitting in the jail, it is better for everybody," Burgh said.
In Manatee County, it costs $74.04 per inmate each day to be incarcerated while the daily cost of supervised release is $1.81 per defendant. Manatee County Supervised Release clients appear for court dates 98 percent of the time, according to the news release.
While probation officers supervise an average of 400 clients a month, Burgh said she would expect an additional spike to an already increasing number of clients after the accreditation. The county has eight probation officers, a chief and a probation assistant.
"That is our goal, for the judges to know we are professionals, and it is our goal to do a good job for Manatee County," Burgh said.
To be able to serve more clients, the county Community Services Department, which supervises the release unit, requested an additional officer in its proposed 2015-16 budget. The $52,893 a year position would allow the unit to complete an estimated 5,200 additional screenings per year, according to county budget documents.
County Administrator Ed Hunzeker did not recommend funding the position in his $550 million budget proposal. County commissioners flagged the item for additional discussion July 30.
"Any additional people, even if it is a minimal amount of people, would help everybody," Burgh said. "Our caseloads are climbing and (the officer would help) to be able to be successful to supervise them in the community. ... We've seen quite a dramatic increase in number of clients we are supervising."
At times, there are a lot of arrests and the unit can't get to everybody, Burgh said.
"We have more clients that we are serving," she said, adding they prioritize screenings based on how they are being held in jail.
Brenda Rogers, community services department director, said June 8 when she presented her department budget, she will continue to request the position be funded.
"We do see a spike of people sentenced to this program," she said. "It helps us as a county government with work that needs to be done but does help with the individuals. ... The position we are requesting would be an additional person that could follow up on those cases."
Hunzeker said "it is a tradeoff issue" as the jail would fill up without the program.
"We don't want to be in a position to have to fund another jail expansion," Hunzeker said.
Burgh said she is proud of the unit.
"They do a lot of good work for Manatee County," she said. "It is the kind of job that doesn't get a lot of positive comments. When it is something like this (accreditation), it just makes me want to scream to everybody."
Claire Aronson, Manatee County reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Claire_Aronson.