Budget cuts that took effect this summer have done away with subsidies to Ramsey County sex offenders and domestic abusers who are ordered by judges into treatment programs.

The nearly $500,000 in reductions were detailed in a May 11 letter to the county's Chief District Judge Kathleen Gearin. The cuts were necessary, the letter said, "due to shortfalls in projected 2010 offender fee revenues and reductions in Local Government Aid."

One of the issues for the judges, Gearin said, is that if an offender can't afford to take domestic abuse or sex offender treatment and the county can't subsidize it, a judge probably can't issue a parole violation. Accountability suffers.

But, Gearin said, most of the jurists understand that, "We don't have the funding to do all of the programming we'd like. I don't see that changing much in the future. This is the new reality of government."

Among the changes:

• Most offenders ordered to attend domestic abuse programs will have to foot the bill themselves. Prior to July 1, the county subsidized them on a sliding fee scale but didn't "pay the whole boat for anybody," said John Menke, assistant director of the Ramsey County Corrections Department's adult services division. There are now 11 program options available that range from $15 a session for 18 weeks to $25 a session for 16 weeks.

• Those who are ordered into sex offender treatment were already paying a significant portion of the costs, but will now have to pick up the whole tab. For some, health insurance pays. Those without it pay a minimum of more than $100 a month. The 24-month programs can cost more than $5,000 a year, Menke said.

• There will be fewer beds available in halfway houses to help ex-offenders ease their way back into society.

• And those who must submit urine samples for drug and alcohol testing will find themselves doing it less often and, in many cases, taking a breath test instead.

The cuts affect only the adult division.

Menke said "rather than running even or ahead [on the budget], we were running significantly behind."

For example, by July 1, the department had used $133,000 of its yearly $240,000 budget for drug testing and was on track to spend more than $290,000. That budget has been reduced $50,000, to $190,000. Ramsey County is one of the few counties in the state that doesn't charge offenders anything for drug and alcohol testing, Menke said.

Not subsidizing domestic abuse programming will save $112,000. Ending subsidies for sex offender treatment and eliminating such programming at the workhouse will save $71,000.

At any given time, there are about 100 people in domestic abuse programming, 60 to 75 in sex offender treatment, and six to eight men and women in halfway houses, Menke said.

"We have a duty to make sure we're putting our limited resources toward addressing risk factors, not just to make everybody feel better," Gearin said. "The public likes it if we put seven conditions on probation, but if those conditions don't go to the people who need them the most, then we aren't using the public's money wisely."

There is, however, some disagreement on just who needs probation's services and programs the most.

District Judge Margaret Marrinan said she believes it is the first- or second-time offenders.

"When they're talking about cutting back on drug testing, I'd be concentrating on entry-level dopers," she said. "The likelihood of succeeding after they've been in the system too long is greatly decreased."

Marrinan said, to her, high-risk offenders equal habitual offenders and "if that's the case, maybe they should be going to prison."

Menke said probation agents are being trained to better use risk-assessment tools and aim their resources where they'll be most effective. "Obviously we make some exceptions for people whose offenses are such that were they to repeat them, it poses a danger to society," he said.

Dan Cain, executive director of RS Eden, which offers substance abuse treatment, drug testing and runs halfway houses, said every county is making budget cuts, not just Ramsey County. "It's a matter of how transparent the cuts actually are," he said. "Ramsey is unique in terms of saying we're going to cut back this amount, and from our standpoint, that allows us to do planning."

Pat Pheifer • 612-741-4992