Minnesota counties have spent tens of millions of dollars building jail cells no one needs.

In the past five years, county boards have built modern jails that have added about 2,300 new beds to the state's total, with more opening in the months to come. But they did so just as crime has plummeted, with 18,000 fewer arrests than five years ago.

The result is a fevered competition to help the jails pay for themselves by renting out empty beds for other counties' inmates. One sheriff has even asked legislators to rewrite laws to allow him to make money from Wisconsin inmates.

No one claims to know exactly how bad the problem is. But it looks as if there are thousands of empty beds -- the equivalent of all the combined space in the state's 40 smallest jails.

Much of the building boom was sensible, preparing for future needs and replacing antiquated facilities. But some of it amounted to an entrepreneurial gamble that is starting to look ill-timed.

"It's kind of like suddenly county boards, they thought that this would be a good way of bringing in revenue," said Washington County's jail commander, Chuck Yetter. "And it can be, to a certain point. But then what happened is, counties started competing for bed space."

When demand exceeded supply, he said, inmate revenue dried up and "county boards and sheriffs started panicking to bring in the revenue to help with the costs."

Everyone seems to blame someone else. "A number of legislative mandates relative to inspections of jails have forced counties into purchasing or building or upgrading jails," said James Franklin, executive director of the Minnesota Sheriffs' Association. But Shari Burt, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Department of Corrections, said that's not how it works. The state simply points out deficiencies. "We don't tell a facility, 'you have to build a new one.'"

In counties across Minnesota, the price for taxpayers could be higher taxes, fewer services or both. In Carver County, for instance, though officials deny there's a connection, a long-planned cutback in sheriff's service to rural areas has arrived at the same moment as the county is about to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in inmate boarding fees.

Lots of counties lose out

But Carver, which will lose inmates because neighboring McLeod County no longer needs the extra room, is hardly the only one sweating it:

• Scott County got a punch to the gut last month when it learned it was about to lose half a million dollars because neighboring Dakota County was switching female inmates to Ramsey County, which has empty space and is closer.

"For us, it's who's going to give us the biggest bang for our buck," said Dakota County jail commander Blair Anderson.

• Goodhue County wants to take in prisoners from Wisconsin because Wabasha County is about to open a new jail and stop paying Goodhue. A decade-old Goodhue jail that has taken in as much as $2 million a year will be down to $500,000 next year.

And the county can't close parts of its jail, said Sheriff Dean Albers. That would risk mixing men with women or violating other forms of inmate classification. "Whether you have 45 or 145," he said, "the lights are on, the heat's on, the staff's there."

• In just one of the new inducements inmate-starved counties are offering, Brown County, like your local pizza parlor, promises free delivery. The first transport of an inmate to its half-empty jail will be cost-free for the county that signs on the bottom line.

"Some offer free round trips," said the county's sheriff, Rich Hoffman. "A lot of jail beds have gone up, and not a lot are full. All our neighboring counties built new jails, and that made a difference. Plus there's a shift in society to keep people out of jail -- through probation or drug court -- and keep them contributing."

• With 150 empty cells and the demand still dropping, Hennepin County's workhouse chief is seeking a full-scale review of the causes -- and the outlook for the future.

"Something's going on," said Dennis Gilbertson, "and I'm not quite sure what. Everyone's scratching their heads and saying, 'What changed?' You can't shut down institutions and things like that based on one or two years of data, but we are running reports on this and looking at this stuff every month."

The empty bed problem comes on top of a blow the Minnesota Supreme Court delivered to jails on Dec. 3. The high court ruled that sheriffs can no larger charge inmates for staying in jail until after they've been convicted of a crime. In the Olmsted County case the court decided, the inmate had spent nearly a year behind bars, so that could cut into revenues as well.

Jails were never designed to make money, said Reed Ashpole, Carver County's jail commander. "The shining example," he said, is the western Minnesota town of Appleton. "The city bought into building a jail, they built one, sold it, and now they're going out of business."

Murder peaked in '05

Jails take many years to plan and build, and the new ones were authorized in an era when crime was up, the population was rising -- especially in the suburbs and exurbs -- and demand for cells was high.

Who knew that murder would peak in 2005 and fall every year since? Rape, robbery and other violent crimes peaked in 2006 and have fallen every year. Larceny peaked in 2004. Burglary and car theft peaked in 2005. All three property crimes have dropped each year since.

The causes are puzzling, but frequent suspects include an aging population, the disappearance of itinerant workers when the housing boom went bust, a slowdown in population growth and a dropoff in meth-related crime when access to the drug's ingredients was restricted.

Counties now sitting with many empty cells say they did their due diligence at the time. "You make your best guess," said Gary Shelton, administrator of Scott County, which opened its jail in 2005. "We had three different organizations do independent projections of our need over 20 to 50 years.

"One thing we did say to the board was, 'Don't rely on this as a means of garnering revenue. ... Don't put it in a piggy bank to solve your budget problems, selling jail beds.'"

The situation does have its winners. A county such as McLeod, its demand for space vanishing, can stop writing big checks to Carver. A county like Dakota, conservative in its building program, now can shop for deals. And some do note that new-model jails can be cheaper to run than the old ones, with one deputy keeping an eye on scores of inmates -- if there are any.

Franklin, of the sheriffs' association, noted that planning and building a jail takes time, sometimes eight or 10 years. "In fairness to some of these counties, they started the process and things have changed, perhaps," he said.

He cautioned that crime can be unpredictable, and history has shown spikes and lulls in the jail population. For now, however, the beds are empty.

"You're glad the crime is down and you have less inmates, but on the other hand, you built a brand new facility to house the increase," said Albers, of Goodhue County. "We built it and they didn't come."

Katie Humphrey • 952-882-9056 David Peterson • 952-882-9023