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Empty Jail Beds Bankrupting Minnesota Counties

According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, violent and property crime rates have dropped steadily across the nation since at least 1992. Yet some states stubbornly insist on building prisons and jails they cannot afford to operate.

Minnesota is just one recent example of such fiscal irresponsibility. As Minnesota county officials are in the midst of an unprecedented jail-building boom, they face a surplus of cells they are unable to fill or afford.

Minnesota’s problem stems, in part, from a state-led campaign to modernize and expand deteriorating 19th century jails. Many county commissioners were once certain that they could profit by housing prisoners from other jurisdictions. As a result, dozens of counties built new facilities, increased capacity at existing jails or did both, adding about 2,000 beds to the state’s jail system since 2003.

Minnesota officials now admit that more than 3,000 cells statewide sit empty on any given day. Goodhue County officials were alarmed when they saw their new jail was only a third full.

“That, from a crime standpoint, should be good,” said Goodhue County Administrator Scott Arneson. Of course from a financial perspective it’s not so good, as jails are expensive to operate. “We built it and they didn’t come,” noted former Goodhue County Sheriff Dean Albers.

In Houston County, Minnesota, officials recently questioned whether they should even open a new 84-bed jail that was months away from completion.

“You wouldn’t open a motel expecting 50 percent occupancy or less,” observed Jack Miller, Chairman of the Houston County Board of Commissioners.

Although the county spent $17 million to build the jail as part of a criminal justice complex, not opening it would avoid staffing costs. Even so, the Board of Commissioners decided, on a split vote, to open the facility as planned.

Houston County is far from alone. An overabundance of jail beds is a statewide problem, though it mostly affects small, rural communities. In Scott County, jail vacancies have caused daily incarceration costs to spike from $115 to $159 per prisoner in just two years. The county is preparing to offer early retirement to jailers to reduce the facility’s operating expenses. Swift County has discussed closing its jail.

In fact, counties with vacant bed space are in competition with each other to house prisoners from other jurisdictions. Brown County is even offering incentives to keep its jail population up, including free prisoner transportation. Goodhue County wants to import prisoners from Wisconsin to fill its empty jail beds.

Nor can counties boost their revenue through pay-to-stay fees imposed on jail prisoners, as the Minnesota Supreme Court held on December 3, 2009 that sheriffs cannot levy such fees on pretrial detainees. See: Jones v. Borchardt, 775 N.W.2d 646 (Minn. 2009).

Officials in twelve Minnesota counties have come together to explore ways to solve the excess jail space problem and ease the growing financial burden through a cooperative effort. Ideas that have emerged include sharing contracts for food, clothing and other supplies, as well as sharing transportation costs and even prisoners, to allow counties to close parts of their mostly-empty jails.

Specialized regional facilities have also been discussed. For example, if all the women prisoners in a specified area were sent to one jail, other counties could shut down their under-utilized and less-efficient units for female offenders. Even when jails house only a few women prisoners they have to operate and staff the entire unit.

“Funding a jail is not highly appreciated,” noted Jeff Spartz, head of the Association of Minnesota Counties. While fiscal constraints have apparently trumped the desire of public officials to build more jail beds, some counties remain unwilling to cut back.
“There’s a reluctance to close a jail even if you aren’t operating at its most efficient point,” said Spartz. “Things could change in a couple years and then we’ve got a large expense to open it up again, and we’re subject to a lot of criticism.”

Cities and counties in Texas have been saddled with expensive jails they are unable to fill, too, resulting in major financial problems. [See: PLN, Feb. 2012, p.32].

Sources: Star Tribune, Minnesota Public Radio

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