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Editorial: Jail border law offers potential

The Minnesota/Wisconsin boundary has held the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department hostage, so to speak, but release may be in sight.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is expected to sign the jail border bill soon. In theory, this will mean Pierce County could ease its aging and overcrowded jail by bringing inmates across the Mississippi River to the Goodhue County Adult Detention Center.

Although Red Wing is about 15 miles away from Ellsworth and the local jail typically has cells available, Wisconsin law forced Pierce County to take excess inmates to jails in St. Croix County (Hudson, 25 miles), Pepin County (Durand, 31 miles), Dunn County (Menomonie, 27 miles) and perhaps beyond.

The current Wisconsin law allows the Department of Corrections to house prisoners out of state provided certain conditions are met, but prevents counties from doing the same.

Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, has championed interstate county agreements because she’s seen the burden that transporting inmates farther than necessarily means in terms of mileage and staff time. She also knows this could mean that smaller counties bordering Illinois, Iowa, Michigan or Minnesota don’t necessarily have to build multi-million-dollar jails and staff them (the latter being the bigger ongoing expense) when the new law provides flexibility in handling the ebb and flow of a jail population.

This winter the Wisconsin Legislature finally passed her bill. If Walker signs it, as he’s indicated he will on Wednesday, a county may enter into an agreement with a receiving county outside of Wisconsin to detain or imprison people before, during and after trial so long as

•the counties border each other,

•the monthly expenses charged to the Wisconsin county are at least 25 percent less than the expenses charged by the Wisconsin county,

•the county-to-county contract mirrors the general state-to-state DOC contract, and

•the receiving county meets its state’s jail licensing and inspection requirements.

Pierce and Goodhue counties may never come to such an agreement for all kinds of reasons. Pierce County Board has been taking steps toward building a new law enforcement complex and may decide the new law isn’t reason enough to stop. However, we encourage supervisors to consider the law’s ramifications when determining how large a jail to build.

Goodhue County and Pierce County have a long history of cooperation and mutual aid, on the river, on the roadways and in the air — between law enforcement, fire and ambulance departments. A jail agreement deserves a look.