Panel, sheriff review county's jail needs

Stevens County's sheriff told the advisory committee studying a $15 million building project that the proposed jail plans are appropriate for the county's needs.

Stevens County's sheriff told the advisory committee studying a $15 million building project that the proposed jail plans are appropriate for the county's needs.

Sheriff Randy Willis and county Facilities Coordinator Dave Schmidt met with the Stevens County Citizens/County Board Facilities Project Advisory Committee during the panel's third meeting Monday at the courthouse.

See accompanying story on Schmidt's review of courthouse renovations.

Willis addressed the county's prisoner population and law enforcement needs while Schmidt reviewed renovation needs for the courthouse.

The committee also discussed questions it has received from the public and how to best answer them.


Most members of the panel will travel to tour Renville County's jail on March 23.

The committee was formed last month after the county board delayed for 90 days a $9.8 million bond sale for the jail component. The Stevens County Taxpayers Committee raised objections to the scope and the cost of jail portion of the project.

The committee plans to meet weekly and submit a report on its work by May 15. The county board approved the project last summer and had planned to begin construction this summer, but the worsening economy and doubts about the need for a jail led the taxpayers committee to request the delay.

The firm hired to design the project, Klein McCarthy Architects, was unable to send a representative to Monday's meeting, but may be asked to attend a future meeting.

Willis reviewed recent statistics on the county's average daily prisoner population, and the decision-making behind opting for a 20-cell, 40-bed jail plan.

The plan calls for 10 "hard cells" on both of two levels that could be monitored from a control area manned by a correctional officer and the county's dispatcher. Two other cells for special cases also would be available on one level of the two-level facility.

The county's prisoner Average Daily Population is 7.0 from 2002 to 2009, with a high average of 10.5 in 2006 and a low of 4.7 in 2002.

While those numbers would indicate that 20 cells is too many for the county's needs, several factors related to housing prisoners requires counties to have more cells than it might seem to need, Willis said.


The Department of Corrections recommends that jails maintain about a 70 percent occupancy to allow room in the event that prisoners in certain classifications need to be segregated. For example, jails can't house men and women prisoners in the same areas, and other classifications -- such as medical conditions, flight risks, violent tendencies -- require law enforcement to keep some prisoners separated. Jails are required to have some wiggle room, Willis said.

The DOC caps jail capacity at about 80 percent and rarely makes exceptions to house more, he said.

"Just because you have 40 spots, you're never going to be able to put 40 people in there," Willis said.

Law enforcement also must deal with the fact that a county's prison population fluctuates -- a 7.0 average does not mean there are always seven people in jail at any given time, and a jail must be built with the flexibility to handle the peaks, he said.

A chart Willis gave to the committee showed that at various times since 2002 the prison population was below five per day. There are other periods when the prisoner population exceeds 10 per day, with a peak of more than 20 per day in spring 2006.

"Jail populations are like the stock market," he said. "It has its ups and downs."

Willis noted that a radio news report late last week indicated that county jail populations in Minnesota have decreased about 3.5 percent. While stating that he has no explanation for that drop or if it's a trend, Willis said "everyone believes jail populations will grow."

Staffing numbers and costs are a concern for committee members since operational costs will far exceed the building price of the project over the next 20 years. Willis said the county's jail plan would require the hiring of a jail administrator, five full-time correctional officers and two part-time officers. It's the number required by the DOC to operate a 24-hour, year-around facility. One officer and a dispatcher would be on duty at all times, he said.


Committee member Jeanne Ennen asked Willis if a 72-hour holding facility would be adequate for Stevens County's needs. The sheriff said that the same seven-person staff would be required for a holding facility or a smaller jail -- a 10-cell facility -- as it is for the 20-cell jail. The difference is that an officer wouldn't have to be on duty if no prisoners were being held, and Willis agreed with Ennen that a holding facility would allow the county to delay prisoner transports until daytime hours.

Committee member Neal Hofland, who voted against the jail project when he was on the county board, said he believes jail population numbers in the county were higher several years ago because of the methamphetamine problem and that the ADP has fallen recently because of law enforcement's crackdown on meth labs. Hofland recommended the county delay jail discussions for a couple of years to gain more accurate numbers. Klein McCarthy's projections for the county's ADP were flawed because they were extrapolated from those temporarily inflated ADP figures, he said.

Willis defended Klein McCarthy's work, saying the projections were made a couple of years ago and that the firm was working with the best information it had at the time. He said KMA is an experienced jail design firm that is respected throughout the five-state region and that he didn't believe the firm was inflating numbers to persuade the county to build a larger, more expensive jail to pad its payments.

"My belief, when this came up, is that if a jail is to be built, building it this size is the most fiscally responsible," Willis said. "Building it smaller would be fiscally irresponsible."

The panel also discussed geographical information. County board member Don Munsterman said that Big Stone, Pope and Grant counties do not have jails, and Swift County's jail is small. A jail in Stevens County would be geographically central in the region and informal discussions with representatives from those counties indicate they would be open to sending prisoners to Stevens County's facility, Munsterman said.

However, Hofland said the county needs some kind of commitment because jails in the region are looking to bring in prisoners from other counties.

"Is it solid?" Hofland said.

Willis said he has talked with sheriffs from surrounding counties and believes that, while nothing can be confirmed until a facility is built, other counties would be open to bringing prisoners to a Stevens County jail.


Committee member Jack Lampert said he didn't want the county to be building a jail of the size proposed to help other counties. Willis said the jail planned is for Stevens County's needs, and that any additional prisoners would be brought in to help offset operational costs.

Public's questions wanted

The Stevens County Citizens/County Board Facilities Project Advisory Committee is seeking the public's questions about the county's $15 million building plans as the panel reviews the project over the next two months.

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