With demand for cells shrinking, Scott and Carver counties are considering merging a pair of jails, both built within the past 20 years.

Carver’s jail went up in 1994, Scott’s in 2005. But the average number of inmates in both institutions could fit within Scott’s with room to spare.

Both sides stress that the talks are preliminary, with no decision expected for many months. But they add that with total costs of more than $7 million, the savings could be substantial.

“When you look at their capacities and the number of inmates,” said Carver County Administrator Dave Hemze, “there’s a gap there. That is the biggest driver as to why we would even consider the move. With that many vacant beds, does it make sense?”

Options include assigning different categories of inmates to each jail, or mothballing one of them for the time being, officials said.

The two counties are not unusual in having planned and built costly jails at a time when crime was rising, and, in the case of suburbs and exurbs, growth expectations were greater than they are today.

Today, “crime is down big,” said Carver County Sheriff Jim Olson. “I wish I could say it was law enforcement, but it’s a national trend. We’re aging, with fewer young adults in the 15- to 24-year-old age range who are more apt to do crime.”

Over the past four years, the combined average daily inmate count between the two jails has shrunk from 222 to 186, a drop of 16 percent.

Early opposition is coming from judges, officials say. One option is to shift all criminal courts to one side of the Minnesota River, creating more specialized courts on both sides — criminal and civil — but that is an unappetizing feature for some.

Nor are sheriffs totally keen. Their staffs are on the line, and they want to make sure lots of extra transport time doesn’t compromise public safety.

But commissioners on both sides, noting that there are shared jails in other parts of the state, want to explore the idea.

“If it saves money, why not?” said Scott County Commissioner Dave Menden. Added colleague Tom Wolf: “I just hope everyone comes to this with an open mind.”

The cost to taxpayers to run the jails is $4.4 million in the bigger Scott, $2.8 million in Carver.

Most of that is for personnel, and there’s a lot of angst among workers on both sides of the river as the issue is raised, administrators said.

It’s one reason Hemze is keen on moving quickly. “Frankly, I think productivity is being affected even now,” he said.

With both boards giving the idea the preliminary green light during a joint meeting last week when most of the major players gathered in one room, the next step is detailed consultations with a long list of stakeholders over how each could be affected.

The timetable calls for that to take place from April through July, followed by a task force’s final recommendation by October.

In November, the two boards would gather again to consider that advice, and by December each would sign off on implementation of any plan.

Sharing sevices nothing new

The two counties are old hands at this sort of idea. They’ve merged transit functions and have extensively discussed other forms of cooperation to achieve savings. They are by far the two most politically conservative counties in the seven-county metro.

Any merger, they stress, wouldn’t necessarily be permanent, subject to future needs based on growth in population, crime or other changes.

In the meantime, though, questions could include the proper venue for trial: Could trials be held, thanks to special legislation if necessary, in a county other than the one in which the offense occurred? Could jurors get to the other courthouse, especially during bridge-closing floods?

In sum, said Hemze, “It would be a massive undertaking, and we’re taking an initial look at it. We don’t know if we will go on to have more questions than answers, but it was important to come into a public room and talk about this issue.”

Added his counterpart in Scott, Gary Shelton:

“A lot of dollars could be saved. We’re not sure about other impacts.”