Inmate work program may be in jeopardyChris Faust has days when he tumbles into his cot at the Goodhue County jail exhausted and worn out. He falls asleep immediately.
By: Jen Cullen, The Republican Eagle
Chris Faust has days when he tumbles into his cot at the Goodhue County jail exhausted and worn out. He falls asleep immediately.
The fatigue is worth it for Faust, who knocked three months off his time behind bars working on the county's Sentencing to Service crew.
"Instead of sitting in jail doing nothing ... you get to do some good for the community to pay for the bad you did," said Faust, who will be released from jail Tuesday. "Plus, you gain a lot of knowledge. It's on-the-job training."
Faust is upset that counties may be forced to yank the popular program - an alternative punishment for some nonviolent offenders - under a proposal by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
The governor's state budget-balancing plan proposes eliminating a $3 million state subsidy for the STS program in an attempt to protect funding to prisons and other corrections programs.
"With the current budget situation, we really had to look at preserving our core functions, and that's our prisons and our supervision of offenders in the community," Minnesota Department of Corrections spokeswoman Sarah Berg said.
Goodhue County paid $114,000 last year for its STS crews, who do everything from mowing lawns and chopping wood to renovating buildings. The city of Red Wing pays approximately $37,000 to fund a partial crew for city jobs.
The state pays roughly half the cost of Goodhue County's crews, County Administrator Scott Arneson said, though that funding would be cut under Pawlenty's proposal.
"If this is going to fall in the same category as other programs the state has shifted to us, I'm not certain I see it continuing," Arneson said. "The commissioners are going to have some really tough situations. With what's left there are a lot of popular items still that may need to be cut."
STS has been popular in Goodhue County, with crews working on projects from Red Wing to Kenyon.
Crewmembers participate in lieu of jail time or in exchange for a reduced jail sentence. Sheriff Dean Albers said the program was designed to relieve jail overcrowding, which he said is no longer a problem.
Still, he said eliminating STS would be devastating for government entities that utilize low-cost labor to get important projects done.
"The loss of the program would be substantial to the county, the cities and townships," Albers said. "They do a lot of things for all these entities."
Goodhue County STS crews worked almost 9,500 hours from July 2009 until March 5, according to a work report provided by the county.
Officials say it's impossible to tell exactly how much money was saved using the crews, though Commissioner Ron Allen said he believes the savings are huge.
"It'd definitely be a program we'd want to fund. It's cost effective," he said. "It's one of the best programs in the state."
Allen said officials will need to brainstorm creative funding methods or look for financial partners to keep the program afloat since he does not think the county will be able to foot the entire bill if the state cuts its subsidy.
"I really want to keep that program. It's a priority," Allen said.
The corrections department knows STS has been a savings for counties, Berg said, and hopes it will continue to be funded at the local level.
Faust said the state should continue providing funding.
"I think it'd be terrible to see it go," he said. "It'd be a huge loss."
"I think it's a very good program," he said. "It helps government reduce their costs and helps these individuals get life skills."
At least one lawmaker has already written legislation he hopes will save the program.
Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, said his bill would shift more of program's cost onto the counties - a 75/25 split instead of the current 50/50 deal - but would allow them to charge townships, cities and other agencies a fee to help cover work costs.
Counties could also consider charging inmates interested in STS work a nominal fee to participate.
"I think there may be some creative ways to offset the costs," Kelly said. "It's not like we're holding them hostage and saying you have to pay to get out of jail. There's a benefit.
Kelly's bill had its first reading Tuesday.
Albers said there is also talk of funding the STS program by putting the state's short-term offenders back in county jails.
In theory, the state would pay to house criminals locally. Albers said similar attempts in the past have seen the state pay as little as $6 to $8 daily for each inmate, leaving the county footing more than its fair share of the bill.
Woodbury Bulletin reporter Scott Wente contributed to this story. The Woobury Bulletin and Red Wing Republican Eagle are both owned by Forum Communications Co.