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Prisoner edict strains county jails

Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS -- A move to put short-term felons in county jails instead of overcrowded state prisons is causing pain for some counties, which aren't getting enough money from the state to cover costs.

A year after the Legislature made the change, many county officials are complaining that reimbursements are too small for unexpectedly high numbers of short-term inmates. They also say they're worried about an unhealthy mix of prisoners in their jails.

"Either the Legislature is going to have to pay for this, or say 'Tough luck,' but not yell at us when we have to raise property taxes," said Jim Mulder, executive director of the Association of Minnesota Counties.

Olmsted County Sheriff Steve Borchardt said the state is paying $13 per day to house an inmate, but it costs the county nearly $80.

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"This is a cost shift from the state to the local," he said. "It was a sleight of hand that was used to balance the budget with, quote, no new taxes, unquote."

The 2003 Legislature passed a law directing to county jail any criminal whose actual time behind bars would be six months or less. But only $1.2 million was appropriated, leaving counties holding the bill. Mower County had 22 new inmates under the revised rules, at an extra cost of $121,400.

"These unfunded mandates drive us all crazy," said John Skavnak, superintendent of the Hennepin County Adult Correctional Facility. "That's really what this is. It sucks revenue from other parts of your program."

Ken Merz, director of administrative services for the state Department of Corrections, said the move to county jails makes sense.

"Prison is really geared for the long term," Merz said. "People who are going to be there over a year can get some treatment and education. When we get these individuals who come to us with less than six months, they can't get into any of our programs."

Mulder and others also said they worried that putting short-term inmates in jails is risky because it mixes serious criminals with low level offenders who generally show up in county jails.

Corrections Commissioner Joan Fabian said the state probably needs to develop some kind of short-term treatment, training and education programs for inmates spending up to a year at the county level. Meanwhile, she said, she planned to ask the Legislature to approve more money to cover counties' costs for taking on the additional prisoners.

Staff writer Joshua Lynsen contributed to this report.

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