Pubdate: Sat, 07 Apr 2007
Source: Austin Daily Herald, The (MN)
Copyright: 2007 Austin Daily Herald Inc
Author: Lee Bonorden, Austin Daily Herald


No Mower Countian should for a moment think the county is alone in 
its jail-justice center saga.

In fact, there are 42 Minnesota counties presently studying expanding 
or building new jail and justice center facilities.

That's what the Mower County Board of Commissioners and selected 
staffers learned at the recent Association of Minnesota Counties' 
legislative conference.

David Hillier, 3rd District county commissioner, said Tuesday the 42 
jail and justice center issues did not include counties who have 
attempted to solve issues of their own by building new facilities, 
such as the recently opened Steele (3 years ago) and Freeborn County 
(last year) jail and justice centers.

Ironically, both counties are presently shopping around the 
availability of jail beds to other counties discussing how to address 
their own jail over-crowding and district court security issues.

Craig Oscarson, county coordinator, said, "They (AMC lobbyists) told 
us that part of the sales tax receipts can be used by counties for 
the purchase of jail equipment and furnishings."

That may come as some consolation to taxpayers when they hear from 
the Mower County Commissioners that a new stand-alone jail and 
justice center in the green-field site proposed by the city of Austin 
or the county's preferred site south of the Austin Municipal Airport 
in Windom Township could cost $35 million or more.

"It (a share of sale tax receipts) would reduce the costs you are 
contemplating there will be for a new jail or justice center if you 
decide to build," Oscarson told the commissioners.

Short-term offenders, big expenses

Another "thorny" subject is the state of Minnesota's decision to send 
short-term (180 days or less) offenders home to their counties of 
residence to serve out their sentences.

That, in turn, was intended to relieve the state's own prison 
over-crowding concerns.

According to Hillier, the commissioners learned at the AMC 
legislative conference the state is reimbursing the county only $13 
per day in per diem costs for housing short-term offenders in county 
jails, while the costs are $55 or more in per diem alone.

"We have a serious problem here as far as housing prisoners is 
concerned," Hillier said. "According to the last statistics, in 1988 
there were 3,600 prisoner beds in Minnesota.

"Last year -- 2006 -- the number of adult beds in the state grew to 
over 9,100," Hillier added. "That's why we have 42 counties 
considering building new jails."

Hillier also had statistics about the state's three-year-old and 
heavily criticized short-term offender program.

"Mower County housed 13 short-term offenders here for the state in 
2003," he said. "There were 14 more in 2004, 12 in 2005 and 18 in 2006.

"That's basically over the capacity of the Mower County Jail we are 
allowed today," Hillier said.

The Mower County Jail's capacity is 45 prisoners. However, that may 
be reduced further, according to Mower County Sheriff Terese Amazi, 
after the Minnesota Department of Corrections shuts down more 
prisoner beds in the local jail, because the DOC does not believe it 
is up to today's standards for housing prisoners.

Oscarson pointed to proposals to increase the per diem rate the state 
will pay counties to house prisoners.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty is proposing reimbursing the counties $20 per 
prisoner per day and the Minnesota Legislature's proposal is $33 per 
prisoner per day, according to Oscarson.

However, the county coordinator also pointed out both proposals fall 
far short of actual expenses incurred by counties to house the 
state's prisoners.

Because counties must also pay for prisoners' medical expenses while 
incarcerated, there is a health issue that counties must also face, 
according to Hillier.

"Between 25 and 30 percent of the prisoners are on psychotropic 
drugs, because they suffer from some form of mental illness," Hillier 
said, "and that's another expense counties must bear along with the 
costs to operate a jail."

The AMC legislative conference update from commissioner Hillier and 
Oscarson ended at that point.

On Tuesday, the commissioners are slated to resume their discussion 
of local jail-overcrowding conditions and the boarding-out of 
prisoners at the conclusion of their regular county board meeting.
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