If crime's down, why's jailing up?

  • Updated: March 9, 2010 - 5:15 PM

Scott County looks for ways to cut the cost of secure confinement for juvenile offenders, who can't be housed with adult inmates.


Scott County has way more jail cells than it needs. But it's still having to buy space in other county jails.

And that conundrum is leading to some serious thinking about what to do differently in the future.

Scott's own adult jail in Shakopee opened four years ago with 264 beds -- but, owing to a combination of factors, the jail roster on one recent day contained a mere 92 names.

Still, because the state won't let juveniles be housed under the same roof as adult inmates, the county is paying to ship teenagers to jails in other counties -- at a cost that can run more than $200 a day per inmate.

And the use of this type of secure confinement is rising at a time when the number of juvenile arrests is declining.

With the county's budget crunch threatening to become more severe, officials are starting to talk publicly about finding other ways to handle the punishment of juvenile offenders.

The same discussion has played out in other jurisdictions, said Scott Beaty, the Mendota Heights-based executive director of the Minnesota Youth Intervention Programs Association.

"People consistently are looking for ways to keep these kids out of detention," he said, "because studies show it doesn't do them much good and it costs a lot of money."

In fact, a March 24 conference at St. Thomas University will focus on "dismantling the pipeline to prison through the exploration of preventative measures, early intervention strategies and rehabilitation techniques," in the words of the conference brochure.

Al Godfrey, Scott's director of community corrections, told County Board members last week that locking up a juvenile can cost as much as $230 a day. Other forms of punishment are "significantly cheaper," he said. "Electronic home monitoring runs around $2 to $11 a day. It's cost-effective."

Godfrey is recommending that Scott learn lessons from its neighbor to the east, Dakota County, which not so long ago also found itself staring at a fork in the road. With its 40-bed juvenile detention facility at capacity, it had to decide: Should it add 20 more beds at a cost of $14 million, with an additional $2 million in annual operating costs? Or should it move instead toward other options in dealing with delinquents?

Godfrey himself worked there at the time and took the lead in coming up with a solution.

"We were able to drop the number of kids from 40 to 20 without jeopardizing public safety," he said.

Average stay is a few days

The average length of a juvenile's stay in secure detention is only a few days. And that is "something definitely that is looked at," Godfrey said in an interview. "When we're looking at such a short length of placement, really how much safety concern is there to begin with?

"But I should stress that this is just an average. There are cases where a kid needs to be locked up."

Notwithstanding Scott County's empty cells, he said, "a kid can be in an adult facility for no more than six hours by law. After that, [it's] either home or off to Carver or Dakota" and their juvenile lockups.

Although there aren't a lot of juvenile confinements in Scott right now -- a little over one per week -- the trend lines are moving higher, both in terms of numbers and length of stay.

That situation mirrors the one that faces the adult population in the jail. On that level, jail use has been rising at the same time crime itself has been easing, leading to intensive discussions about how to move the trend lines down. County Administrator Gary Shelton said that process is going well.

The longer-term answer, Beaty said, is to invest at the front end: In intervening with kids who are just starting to get into trouble.

"The history with youth intervention is that in tough times, that gets cut first." But smart intervention work "has great outcomes. Most kids don't get reinvolved as long as we keep track of them.

"Like right now, with no money and no low-hanging fruit and a governor who won't raise taxes, all we do is cut, even though it costs money in the long run. Let's take a look at programs we know are working and have good outcomes, and instead of cutting them, maintain those and look for other things that don't have that."

David Peterson • 952-882-9023

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