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Crow Wing County Board: Sentencing to Service program to end

A state-operated sentencing alternative program in Crow Wing County came to an end after several decades because of what officials say are budgetary reasons.

Crow Wing County Sheriff Todd Dahl (left) and Jail Administrator Heath Fosteson explain to the county board commissioners (left to right) Paul Koering, Rosemary Franzen, Doug Houge, Paul Thiede and Rachel Reabe Nystrom on Tuesday that low participation in the Sentencing to Service program is the reason behind a proposal to end it in the county after more than 20 years. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch
Crow Wing County Sheriff Todd Dahl (left) and Jail Administrator Heath Fosteson explain to the county board commissioners (left to right) Paul Koering, Rosemary Franzen, Doug Houge, Paul Thiede and Rachel Reabe Nystrom on Tuesday that low participation in the Sentencing to Service program is the reason behind a proposal to end it in the county after more than 20 years. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

A state-operated sentencing alternative program in Crow Wing County came to an end after several decades because of what officials say are budgetary reasons.

Jail Administrator Heath Fosteson also told the county board at its Tuesday meeting there is a lack of participation in the Sentencing to Service program in the county.

"As part of the budget process, there was discussion about the county's current STS program ... and lack of participation that we have in the program ... so we are going to end the STS contract with the state of Minnesota," Fosteson said.

Fosteson asked the board's approval to give a 30-day notice to the state of Minnesota to end the state-operated program as Sheriff Todd Dahl sat by Fosteson's side at the board meeting.

The Minnesota Department of Corrections runs the county's Sentencing to Service program for non-violent offenders. A sentencing court refers a potential participant to the program; the person then decides whether to perform work on STS projects in lieu of court-ordered sanctions.

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Non-violent offenders may earn reduced jail time by working on community improvement projects, such as the cleanup of felled trees at the campground in the Gull Lake Recreation Area following a destructive thunderstorm two years ago that shut down the campground for weeks.

Commissioner Paul Thiede told Fosteson and Sheriff Todd Dahl the STS program has been "helpful" for the community, but warned the board and the law enforcement officers nonprofits and others benefiting from the program might object to the decision to end it.

In April, the board approved a contract with the DOC to operate the program, although the cost was set to increase by 6 percent in each of the next two years. Ending the program will save Crow Wing County $65,797.88 in 2018 and $33,857.16 in 2019.

"While I'm sad to see this ending, I think it's the necessary thing to do," Thiede said. "It's unfortunate because there has been a lot of people who have depended on this for help and some of their activities, and it has really been beneficial to the community."

Thiede made the motion at an April meeting, which was seconded by Commissioner Paul Koering, to authorize entering into a contract between Crow Wing County and the state of Minnesota for Sentencing to Service, effective July 1, 2017, through June 30, 2019.

"We've had the program for over 20 years," Fosteson told the board. "We had two crews at one time-went down to one-and the numbers just are not there anymore to support it. And the money just doesn't make sense at this time anymore."

STS participants are required to pay a $25 booking fee, a $5 card fee and $40 for a drug screen they must pass to take part in the sentencing alternative program. They work off all base fines at a rate of $6 per hour and pay for stay at the jail at a rate of $50 per day, based on a full day.

"We are still going to take and screen every candidate who is given the eligibility from the court. We still have positions that they can work inside the facility," Fosteson said.

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The Crow Wing County Jail is licensed by the state of Minnesota to house up to 286 inmates in a 78,000-square-foot facility that includes a gym, full-service medical unit, library, computer lab, laundry facilities, fully staffed kitchen, master control center and a pre-book and booking area.

Fosteson has said the county government benefits from the program, accounting for almost 50 percent of the hours logged by participants. The solid waste department is the primary beneficiary, with the program's cost split evenly between that department and the sheriff's office.

"We've also had discussions with solid waste about continuing to give them people to help support their operation," Fosteson said.

Established in 1986, the STS program is offered in almost 80 percent of counties in the state. Closely supervised offender crews work on projects such as litter pickup, river cleanup, trail development, flood control and storm damage cleanup, and work for nonprofit agencies.

"We are still going to try to give them (nonprofits) the opportunity to utilize those people, so it's just a matter of having training for those people who supervise them on the outside and giving them the opportunity to utilize them when they can," Fosteson told the board.

Fosteson stated in a September letter to DOC District Supervisor Vic Moen the county's decision to end the agreement with the state was "not a reflection of the work and results of the program itself."

"I think also, commissioners, it's important for you to understand that it has no bearing whether or not we enjoy the program or whether we believe in it. There's a whole lot of underlying factors that are involved here," Dahl said.

The salary and benefits for the crew leader, hired by the DOC, represent the costs outlined in the contract approved by the board in April. The county is responsible for 75 percent of the cost, and the state pays 25 percent.

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"If we thought it would be fiscally responsible and we could also do it, we would still have a program. We believe in it," Dahl said.

After hearing out Fosteson and Dahl, Thiede moved to authorize Fosteson to send the 30-day termination notice to the state regarding the decision to end the agreement with the DOC for the STS Program, which the rest of the board approved Tuesday.

"I wish the public could see the fine details of this because I think there's a lot in this that's not-you know there's just a lot of rules and regulations and the courts' opinions and all that factor into this," Thiede said. "I just think it's a sad day in one sense and in another sense inevitable."

Selection of STS Program participants is "a cooperative effort of STS and court staff. Judges order offenders to be placed on STS work crews and the number of hours to be worked."

The DOC believes the estimated monetary benefit of the labor provided by STS participants annually is almost $3.8 million, and the value of projects completed is more than $5.5 million each year.

"Because offenders are out working on crews rather than occupying jail beds, STS saves an estimated 30,000 jail days worth about $1.6 million annually," the DOC reported.

Related Topics: CROW WING COUNTY BOARDCROW WING COUNTYCROW WING COUNTY JAIL
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