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No room at the jailhouse for state prisoners
County sheriffs and other local jail administrators are criticizing Gov. Pawlenty's proposal to shift short-term offenders from state prisons to county jails. As a budget savings measure, Pawlenty would like county jails to hold any prisoners sentenced to six months or less. Sheriffs say the proposal shifts costs from the state to the counties. They also argue that many county jails are near full capacity already.

St. Paul, Minn. — The Department of Corrections says the state would save about $9 million over the next two years if county jails start housing short-term offenders. Assistant Corrections Commissioner Dennis Benson says the change would mean that 200 more prisoners at any one time would complete their sentences in jails, rather than a state prison.

Benson told the House Judiciary Policy and Finance Committee that the state's projected $4.2 billion budget deficit is forcing them to move forward with these changes.

"We're all bucking up here. We're all trying to do our share," says Benson. "We're all trying to be part of the solution here and this is an opportunity, I think, to take advantage of that."

Benson says it doesn't make sense for the state to pay transportaion costs and jail time for prisoners who would only spend six months or less in a state facility. He says most of the prisoners are serving misdemeanor sentences or parole violations.

I think we need to be clear about this. This is a pass-through. I think we need to be clear that this is a dual problem -- it is a problem of both cost and space.
- Tom Atkins, Washington County community corrections

Senate DFLers made a similar proposal in January as part of their budget-balancing plan. They wanted counties to house any offenders sentenced to one year or less. The difference is the Senate proposed providing some financial assistance to the counties.

County officials say Gov. Pawlenty is passing prison costs on to counties without any additional funding. Tom Atkins, Washington County's community corrections director, says the proposal is a significant policy change.

"The cost that the state is saving is a cost to the counties in this process," says Atkins. "I think we need to be clear about this. This is a pass through. I think we need to be clear that this is a dual problem -- it is a problem of both cost and space."

Olmstead County Sheriff Steve Borchardt agrees the problem goes beyond cost. He says many of the county jails have reached full capacity. Others, which are over capacity, are already sending inmates to jails in other counties, and paying extra for it. Adding even more prisoners, he says, is problematic.

"These folks are going to cost us more money. For the jails, like mine, who are already outplacing 12 to 15 prisoners a day at a cost of $75, every additional body that I get under this process is going to cost me money."

The Department of Corrections is also facing a capacity problem. Corrections officials said in January that Minnesota would need two more prisons by 2010 to handle the rising prison population. Pawlenty has proposed double-bunking of some prisoners.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers in the Judiciary Committee questioned the need to make the policy changes. Some argued that local jails couldn't afford or handle the increased capacity.

Sen. Sheldon Johnson, DFL-St. Paul, says offenders who are sentenced to prison time are repeat offenders of lower level crimes. He says keeping them in local jails could be dangerous.

"It takes a lot of work to get to prison, as you know. You really have to screw up and violate probation, or not follow through with treatment. It's usually the bad guys that go to prison," says Johnson. "One of the concerns is putting people with bad records, who have done bad things, into county jails with people with less offenses."

Rep. Steve Smith, R-Mound, says Pawlenty's proposal has been well received by House Republicans. Smith, who chairs the House Judiciary Policy and Finance Committee, says county jails should be able to absorb the shift.

Smith says the Legislature and the Department of Corrections should consider lifting rules that forbid county jails from increasing their capacity. He suggested double-bunking as one alternative.

"We need to find out what safety issues are involved, and any additional costs. But by just eliminating a rule on capping, we can open up 45 beds in one county. We intend to look at the other 86 counties and see how this is affected," Smith says.

The committee took no action on the proposal, and plans to hold additional hearings.

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