For decades, inmates leaving the Hennepin County jail or workhouse received checks to replace any cash they had on them when they were arrested.

Those checks frequently were lost or damaged — or weren't cashed at all because inmates lacked proper identification or a bank account. The county also wouldn't cut checks for less than $5.

Starting this month, debit cards will be issued to departing inmates, who can immediately withdraw money for transportation, food or other needs, 24 hours a day. The new program reduces the bureaucratic headache and cost of tracking thousands of checks. The county recently forked over more than $21,000 in uncashed checks to state coffers.

"We were very intent that a person could access funds with no fees," said Mark Thompson, assistant Hennepin County administrator for Public Safety. "We didn't want any roadblocks."

Problems with checks

During the first half of the year, the county printed nearly 8,000 checks ranging from $1 to $9,000. But that's just the beginning of the expense.

Staff must regularly monitor security systems that alert banks the checks have been issued and reconcile bank statements. Checks from jails are often a target for fraud, Thompson said.

Inmates released from jail when banks were closed might have to wait hours or even days to cash their check, or opt to pay high fees to a check-cashing store. The debit card does not involve any fee if used within five days.

Checks unclaimed for three years are turned over to the state. In a very time-consuming process, if the check is for more than $100, the county first must send a letter of notification to the payee's last known address.

The jail and workhouse take in more than 35,000 people each year.

Almost as good as cash

"The new system gets the money to the inmates faster, in a form that is more widely accepted than a check, while simultaneously saving us the cost and red tape process of issuing checks," said Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek.

Chief Hennepin County Public Defender Mary Moriarty said that while most people in jail would prefer their money be returned in cash, a debit card removes some barriers when a check is issued, she said.

"This is the client's money; they should get it back." she said. "Sometimes people need to slow down and think. We may be talking about small dollar amounts, but it can be a lot of money to people."

Setting precedents

Washington County was one of the first in the state to offer debit cards to its inmates, beginning in 2012. When Ramsey County followed the next year, an inmate filed a federal suit over fees attached to the cards, but a federal court of appeals ruled in the county's favor.

Cmdr. Roger Heinen of the Washington County jail said they decided on debit cards, which make accounting and auditing easier. Jail deputies once counted a cash drawer three times a day, a cumbersome task for a facility that houses 8,000 inmates each year.

The county provides an ATM in the jail lobby for inmates to use the debit cards. This makes it easier to pay for transportation that doesn't accept debit cards, Heinen said.

"This has been a really good change for us," he said.

Hennepin County started discussing debit cards about 2½ years ago. When no bank offered a proposal, the county went with Stored Value Cards Inc., which has worked with more than 50 other jails, said County Treasurer John Villerius.

The County Board approved the program last month. A month's worth of cards will be printed and then the county will wait for feedback, Villerius said.

David Chanen • 612-673-4465