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CROW WING COUNTY BOARD: Ways to reduce jail costs considered

The definition of insanity is usually described as repeatedly doing the same thing and expecting different results.

Crow Wing County Administrator Tim Houle used that example Tuesday as the board considered trying a new program to reduce the chance inmates would return to jail as repeat offenders. 

The county agreed to try it as a pilot program for a year. 

Beth Wilms, community services director, and Gwen Anderson, public health manager, spoke before the board saying they were looking at ways to provide services in a different way to reduce recidivism. 

They pointed to a Release Advance Planning program with success in reducing the number of days inmates have spent in custody, translating to a cost savings to the county. 

RAP is described as an approach similar to hospital discharge planning by working with an inmate and multiple county departments to plan for a jail release. Anderson said it’s as simple as having basic hygiene needs from toothbrushes or a razor, or a place to stay, a job or mental health services. Wilms said some of the people may be eligible for help through veterans services, Medical Assistance or food, to help them get a new start. 

Using numbers from Stearns County, Anderson said between 2005-2010 seven inmates were studied in a volunteer program. By the third year, there was a 72 percent decrease in recidivism, by the fourth year it was 78 percent and by the fifth year an 82 percent decrease was reported. Cass County also uses the program. The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe sent a letter of support to the county.   

A survey in Crow Wing County of 82 inmates showed 51 inmates expressing interest. 

Salary and fringe for one full-time public health nurse for the program is $86,634. Wilms said it’s a good investment to reduce recidivism. Housing inmates costs $55 per day per inmate. The average length of a jail stay is 14 days. Wilms said a significant savings would have to be seen to continue the program past the first year. 

Houle said in absence of assisting people as they leave the jail in a small intervention, people go back to the same situations that got them into trouble to begin with.

“It’s a revolving door and they just keep coming back, that’s insane,” Houle said. 

Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom said she was supportive, noting inmates are in jail for a time but will be released again to live in the community.

“Anything we can do to make that transition is an excellent investment in our safety,” Nystrom said, adding with tight money it was hard to invest in anything but the Stearns County data was provocative. Commissioner Phil Trusty said he could support it since the nurse was already in the budget. 

Chairman Paul Thiede and Nystrom agreed, noting the very thought that they did agree was frightening. Thiede said most people in jail made bad choices and this may be the opportunity to help them make better choices.

Thiede said there is fertile ground to be tilled here. 

The board also accepted the $305,000 MEND contract proposal to handle jail medical services. Sheriff Todd Dahl and Lt. Heath Fosteson, assistant jail administrator, presented the plan saying the contract was expected to save the county $20,000.

The jail, which opened in 2007, had an average daily population of 135.

Fosteson said with detox issues and mental health issues as major contributors to cost of care, having the contract services would handle more of those treatments in house, saving on the highest cost driver of hospitalization. The renewable contract is for one year.

“We are all looking at ways we can provide the services at less of a cost,” Dahl said. 

RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at or 855-5852.