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New jail factors in growth in crime

The need for a new jail in Mower County has not been a new idea.

The current jail was outdated, inefficient and too small — and that was back in 2001.

"We knew it was just a matter of time," said Craig Oscarson, Mower County coordinator. "We either build this or find a place where we could house everyone."

Mower County Jail is now licensed to house 35 inmates, for a maximum of 90 days each. On a typical day, the county has about 70 inmates in custody; the number has climbed to as high as 85 lately, Oscarson said.

In order to pay for the overflow housing, the county has an $800,000 annual boarding budget.


A study estimates that within 20 years, the county will average 130 inmates daily.

"The jail population for serious crime has gone through the roof," Oscarson said. "We have an obligation to lock up people; the other solution is to stop arresting them. We know how that would work."

Mower County is hardly alone in its need.

Steele, Goodhue and Dakota counties are just a few of the Minnesota counties in this region that have built new facilities.

In the last 20 years, 44 of the state's 87 counties have had major renovations and additions or built new jails, said Mower County Board member David Hillier.

"It certainly tells a little about our society and its crime," he said. "I think we've got a good project. It's something that's going to be very functional for the next 40 years."

Law and order

A true justice center, Oscarson said, would also include law enforcement on-site.


While the building was purposely designed to allow for that should the need arise, for the time being, both the Austin Police Department and the Mower County Sheriff's Department will remain in the current Law Enforcement Center.

Three courtrooms and all court services will be on the second floor of the new facility — with a safety factor never seen in Mower County.

A three-hallway concept has been designed to separate all three factions who will use the area: The public, the judicial staff and the inmates who are brought in from the jail.

Two of the courtrooms will feature a jury area; one will not. The three judge's chambers, including one for a visiting judge, will each house a court reporter and law clerk.

While the new jail will be able to house 128 inmates when it opens — mid-November is the goal — there's room to double that amount.

The jail will be able to keep an inmate for up to three years.

"We oversized the interior spaces on purpose," Oscarson said.

"The entire building was built with future growth in mind," he said, "but we hope we don't grow because that means more criminals."


The future

So, what will become of the more than 20,000 square feet that will become available in the current courthouse, once the move is made?

Several ideas have been discussed, including major renovation and moving the county's Health and Human Services staff back to the courthouse. That department is housed at Oak Park Mall.

County leaders remain poised to move HHS downtown as early as 2011 but need to decide this year if those workers will be in a new building or remodeled courthouse space vacated by employees moving across the road to the new justice center later this year.

Oscarson makes no predictions.

"The election will dictate where talks go from here," he said.

Hillier will face Jerry Reinartz for the District 3 seat in November.

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