Jail bill could be burden to counties

Published 9:49 am Friday, April 22, 2011

Members of the state Legislature are working on a bill that, if passed, would give the county jail more use while costing county taxpayers a hefty chunk of change.

The legislation, known as the short-term offenders bill, would mandate a felony prison sentence of 180 days or less be served in county jails instead of state prisons. For example, if someone serves six months of a one-year sentence on probation, but then violates his or her probation, he or she would be sent to a county jail rather than a state prison.

Rich Murray, House Report

Counties that have built jails with additional space — such as Freeborn and Mower counties would bear the burden without due reimbursement.

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Mower County Sheriff Terese Amazi said this mandate was in place from 2003 to 2008 and cost Mower County $497,994. In 2008 alone, the county spent $77,415 on board for short-term offenders — that doesn’t include food or medical expenses, which can get pricey.

“This is another tax shift to local taxpayers,” Amazi said. “This comes out of property taxes instead of state coffers.”

District 27A Rich Murray, R-Albert Lea, said he thinks legislators need to look more at the numbers involved — what it’s going to cost counties versus what it would save the state.

“Is changing going to save both in total?” he said.

He noted he is hearing a lot of rhetoric from both sides of the issue and hasn’t heard the real numbers yet.

“It doesn’t make sense if we’re doing it and then spending more money to accomplish something,” Murray said.

District 27B Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, said she does not plan to support the bill if it comes to a vote on the House floor. Poppe said the bill pushes the financial burden onto the counties, which could cut especially deep if county program aid is reduced.

Jeanne Poppe

“It’s pretty clear that when you’re reducing local government aid and county aid … you’re going to be increasing the local tax burden already,” Poppe said. “Certainly property taxes would be going up to support these kinds of things.”

Mower County Coordinator Craig Oscarson described the move as direct cost shift to counties. He said it’s another way the state is passing budget cuts down.

“It gives county commissioners no choice,” Oscarson said. “It becomes a difficult way to do a budget.”

Amazi said there were three or four short-term offenders being held locally on average from 2003 to 2008, at $65 per day, per inmate. Medical expenses could also increase if enough short-term offenders are being housed.

“The medical costs are getting incurred at a local level,” Amazi said. “Prisons have medical facilities — we don’t.”

A nurse is available at the Mower County jail on weekdays, and a doctor visits once a week, but that might not suffice if the bill passes.

Amazi said she will not hesitate to protest the bill at the Capitol if it reaches the House or Senate floor.

“We don’t have the option,” she said.