Sheriffs denounce bill to put prisoners in local jails

  • Article by: KEVIN GILES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 7, 2011 - 9:45 PM

Counties say state wants to pass costs of housing inmates to local taxpayers, but the bill's sponsor said counties are sending too many short-term offenders to prison.

Legislation that would return state prison inmates to local jails throughout Minnesota has whipped up anger among county sheriffs.

"It's ridiculous. It's the quintessential mandate put on local government," said Sheriff Bill Hutton of Washington County.

The bill by Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, would require state prisoners -- most of them probation violators -- to serve the remaining 60 days of their sentences in county jails. Counties succeeded in repealing a similar law in 2009.

Cornish said counties have been sending hundreds of short-term offenders back to prison for terms of a month or less, costing the state unnecessary expense for processing them and costing counties for transportation. In a single year, he said, 440 such short-term offenders were returned to prisons by county community corrections departments statewide.

"What they're calling unfunded mandates by us are actually starting at the ground level in the counties," said Cornish, a police chief who's spent 36 years in law enforcement.

But Hutton said the Cornish bill is nothing but a blatant attempt to burden counties with state costs.

"What they neglected to talk about was how much money it would cost local taxpayers," he said. Unlike the old law, which paid counties a small daily fee to house state prisoners, the new bill would pay nothing at all. Counties -- meaning local property taxpayers -- would be on the hook for more than $100 a day to house each state inmate. Counties also would have to find money to pay for the inmates' medical care, and unlike past years, the state under the new bill wouldn't provide discipline hearings, Hutton said.

"It's a direct transfer of cost from the prisons to the counties," said Tom Adkins, the community corrections director in Washington County. Judges, not counties, determine where probation violators finish their sentences, Adkins said. .

Sheriffs statewide share concern over the legislation, said Jim Franklin of the Minnesota Sheriffs' Association. In jails that are full, sheriffs would have to rent space in other county jails for their regular inmates to make room for the state prisoners, he said.

"While the state may save a million dollars or whatever it is that they're projecting, it could cost us that much or double in the counties," he said.

Housing an average of 12 short-term offenders a day cost Washington County about $394,000 the last year it was done, said Administrator Jim Schug.

The short-term offender law, as it was known, had rankled counties for years because the state paid only a fraction of the cost, leaving counties to find the rest. In Washington County, for example, Hutton received $10 a day for each state inmate, about one-tenth the overall cost of meals, security and other expenses. Sheriffs have another concern, too: "These are folks with significant criminal histories," Hutton said.

Regular inmates in county jails serve time for traffic violations, criminal damage to property, drunken driving and similar offenses. But many state prisoners have committed serious felonies such as murder and armed robbery and have a history of agitating other inmates, Hutton said.

"We're getting some very significant bad boys and girls through that system," Hutton said. "These are folks that failed. They were told from the very beginning that if they failed they were going to prison. It gets to be a significant burden on local government again."

Cornish said that if the state prisoners were that troubled, counties would be asking for longer prison time.

Kevin Giles • 651-735-3342 Twitter: @stribgiles

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