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Jail work program could cost county more

Sentencing to Service, a jail work program, could see reduced services as part of legislative budget cuts.

"Cuts to the Department of Corrections budget have resulted in a reduction to funds available for the state's portion of the STS program statewide," Trisha Hansen, DOC district supervisor, says in a letter to Sheriff Phil Hodapp.

The result has the county paying 75 percent of the costs and the state 25 percent.

Beltrami County commissioners will discuss the contract changes during their work session that begins 3 p.m. Tuesday in the County Administration Building. Hansen is to present to the board.

Under the changes, program charges vary by the number of crews the county wants to put out in the program that has offenders doing community service rather than sit in jail.

The cost to run one crew is $75,989, with the county responsible for $56,991.75 of the costs under contract amendments. Four crews costs $303,956, with the county responsible for $227,967.

"The legislation does allow for the county board to require offenders participating in STS to pay a fee and/or to assess a fee to entities that receive direct benefit from STS work crews," Hansen wrote.

"While this provision may not work in all cases, it does provide the county with some options to assist with offsetting the increased cost of the STS program," she wrote.

STS crews provided about 23,000 man-hours of work last year, Hodapp said in a April 6 meeting with commissioners and lawmakers in a teleconference call. At $10 an hour, it would mean about $250,000 in work value provided to the community.

The cost to the county was $106,000, Hodapp said, with the state matching at 50 percent of program costs.

"Unquantifiable advantages to it are having the folks that are released from the jail to go out and work are actually working off fines and they're also learning some responsibility," Hodapp said. "They're showing up for work; a lot are showing up from home when they're sentenced to it. It's the first time in their lives they've had a responsibility like that to have a job, to learn something, learn about the business end of a shovel."

Local legislators said that they would fight cuts to STS and would hope to restore funding.

"I spent a lot of time last year working on restorative justice, and this is a form of restorative justice,' said Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji. "It's a win-win for everyone; it just seems like it would be foolishness to look for savings in that program."

Rep. Brita Sailer, DFL-Park Rapids, agreed, saying she has received many comments from agencies using STS services that want to retain the same level of services.

Board Chairman Jack Frost noted how valuable STS crews have been in setting up community events such as Dragon Boat Races and Art-in-the-Park.

"It gives people an opportunity, even if they're serving a sentence, to feel like they're doing something worthwhile for the community, and of course the community benefits at the same time," Olson said. "I can't imagine why we would want to take away that kind of a win-win."

Sailer said she'd like to know how much STS use saves the county, and Olson said it would be good to have those figures statewide.

"It seems to me we get a lot more back for it within the communities," Sailer said.

"This program is very important to our area," Olson said, adding that there are a number of proposals before the Legislature that will save the state money but cost local governments. "Whenever we see cuts that are short-term gains or they're just simply a way of pushing the cost of dealing with an issue downhill to our local property taxes, those are the kinds of things that we should really try to avoid where we can."

Commissioner Jim Heltzer said STS work saved the County Fair Board some $90,000 in one year. "I would imagine if we were to pin down all the other kinds of costs that STS is involved in, we'd find a very substantial amount of money that we would either have to come up with or forego the service."