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Jail committee discusses future with judges, DOC experts

Stevens County District Court Judge Gerald Seibel (left) and 8th Judicial District Chief Judge Paul Nelson speak to the Stevens County Citizens/County Board Facilities Project Advisory Committee this spring. Nelson, in a July 19 letter, announced court administration hours reductions in response to tightening budgets.1 / 3
Tim Thompson of the Minnesota Department of Corrections speaks to the Stevens County Citizens/County Board Facilities Project Advisory Committee on Monday night.2 / 3
Retired DOC senior inspector and jail consultant Allen Brinkman speaks to the Stevens County Citizens/County Board Facilities Project Advisory Committee on Monday night.3 / 3

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

The panel reviewing Stevens County's $15 million building plan met with judges and present and past officials of Minnesota's Department of Corrections on Monday.

They might have left the 2-1/2-hour meeting with more questions than answers, given that ongoing discussions in the Minnesota Legislature could have a major impact on how the county's project progresses.

The Stevens County Citizens/County Board Facilities Project Advisory Committee and an audience of about 50 people crammed into the courthouse meeting area, adjacent rooms and hallways to hear 8th Judicial District Chief Judge Paul Nelson, Stevens County District Court Judge Gerald Seibel, Tim Thompson of the Department of Corrections, and Allen Brinkman, a former DOC senior jail inspector and now a consultant on jail projects.

Both the judges, who are members of the state's Judicial Council, and Thompson talked about proposed legislation -- mostly related to the state's budget problems -- that could have a dramatic impact on judicial and detention services.

Seibel opened the meeting discussing the types of criminal cases he works with and which ones typically carry jail or prison sentences, and the lengths of pre-trial and post-trial incarceration.

In Stevens County, major crimes, which typically involve incarceration, totalled 38 in 2000, and that figure rose to 63 in 2001, 80 in both 2006 and 2007, and 49 in 2008. Most of those cases involve incarceration of one year or less, meaning that time would be served in county jails, Seibel said.

Currently, Stevens County has no jail and must transport its prisoners to other county jails for incarceration.

The methamphetamine problem peaked in 2005, and there has been a significant reduction in meth-related cases since then, mostly after the Legislature passed laws regarding the sale of drugs needed to produce meth in local labs, he said.

But, Seibel said, the case load has increased markedly since he started on the bench in 1992. At that time, Seibel said he might go a month without putting someone in jail. Since 2000, "it's rare" that Seibel will go two weeks without putting someone in lockup, he said, citing a change in the level of offenses.

Responding to questions from panel members, Seibel said incarceration times for pre-trial felony cases ranges from 60 days to 90 days, served locally. Post-trial felony criminals would serve between 30 days and 90 days locally. Post-trial jail times for gross misdemeanors are 30 days to 45 days, and 10 days to 30 days for misdemeanors.

Seibel said he doesn't use home monitoring in many cases -- about 10 percent to 15 percent of the time -- and that while he used Interactive TV almost every day, it has limitations.

Huber laws also play a large role in sentencing, which judges are required to use unless there are good reason not to, Seibel said.

Under Huber, inmates are allowed to leave jail to work, attend school or treatment programs, then return to spend the nights in jail.

However, counties have different criteria on how far away Huber inmates can travel to jobs, and that many Huber inmates don't have drivers licenses, which limits where they can work, he said.

Seibel answered "sometimes" when asked if Stevens County not having a jail affects his sentencing.

"It's one of the factors I have to deal with," Seibel said. "Sometimes, you don't care where they live -- they're going to jail. Other times, they have to go to jail, but you don't want to destroy them."

Nelson discussed the dire straits the state's judicial system finds itself in, and how those circumstances could become "devastating" under budget proposals from Gov. Tim Pawlenty and lawmakers.

Nelson is touring the 8th District to discuss the judicial systems problems with county boards, so Monday's meeting allowed him to address the commissioners and answer questions from the panel.

The 8th District is the smallest of the state's 10 judicial districts, in terms of the population, the number of judges and its budget.

In light of previous cuts and expected reductions, the state's Judicial Council, which regulates much of the state district's policies and business, voted on March 12 to adopt the "lowest norm" for staffing in the 13-county 8th District.

Under announced budget proposals, the district would need to cut $1 million from its $6.3 million budget within 27 months. That would mean cutting 18 case-related staffers in the immediate six counties and Lac qui Parle County, Nelson said.

The Senate's proposed reduction for the judiciary -- 7 percent -- are even more dramatic that Pawlenty's 3.3 percent base cuts. The House hasn't yet announced its budget plans for the judiciary, he said.

The reductions, along with cuts in public defense spending, boils down to judges not even hearing many cases on offenses such as traffic violations. Nelson called that a "realistic likelihood."

"The way we have provided services here and in some areas is going to change," Nelson said.

Nelson was asked about regional trial centers, but said such a concept would be difficult to manage and that, constitutionally, cases must be heard in the county where the case or the offense occurred. He also noted that three cities in the district -- Morris, Montevideo and Willmar -- are required to have sitting judges.

Along with fewer cases being heard, the "lowest norm" staff could require inmates to spend longer times in jail before they appear in court, Nelson said.

Seibel said that the Judicial Council could address redistricting sometime this summer and that a recommendation could come in January 2010.

Both Nelson and Seibel said money would never be a factor is deciding how much time a criminal is sentenced to.

"I can't let that affect my decision," Seibel said. "My decision has to be based on, does this person deserve to be in jail? I can't utilize money."

He also noted that there has been no formal discussion about Stevens County serving as a regional justice center, but added that, "if I look at a map, Stevens County sits in the middle of an area of counties without jails."

There are 12 Minnesota counties that don't have jails. Four are in the 8th District, and three -- Big Stone, Ottertail and Grant -- are in the northern assignment area of the district, which includes Stevens County, Seibel said.

Committee member Don Munsterman asked Seibel if Stevens County is "sitting on a time bomb" in terms of legal liability and having no jail.

Seibel said there have been security issues in courtrooms, and that two counties had homicides in court facilities.

"It's one of those things where you hope for the best," he said. "It's a concern you try not to focus on."

Thompson reiterated a point he made during a taxpayers committee meeting earlier this year that the DOC does not require counties to have jails, despite state statute that states that counties "shall" have jails.

"Does DOC require counties to have jails? The answer to that is no," Thompson said.

That decision must be made by county officials, and they are best served to have the DOC involved in every step of the planning process, which Stevens County has done, Thompson said.

Whether a county builds a 72-hour holding facility, a 90-day lockup or a one-year facility, the staffing requirements are the same. A 72-hour holding facility would not require staffing if no one is locked up, but that relying on part-time staff to handle such a facility would be "problematic" since it would require a staff member to be on call in unpredictable circumstances.

Thompson also said the DOC has no regulatory authority over court "holding rooms" -- that would be under the purview of the county sheriff -- and he cautioned that without proper supervision, holding rooms could be a source of civil rights violations if an inmate were held too long in such a facility.

"You'll have big legal battles on your hands," Thompson said.

Brinkman spent 15 years with the DOC, 10 years as a senior inspector. He retired and now works with six counties in Minnesota and in surrounding states as a consultant.

The size and costs of Stevens County's project has been reduced to the point "there is not any fat left in there," Brinkman said.

Jails are not popular projects for counties to propose or taxpayers to pay for, but they are necessary, Brinkman said. In today's society, jails handle many types of people in the judicial system, including court cases, probation cases, people with chemical dependency and mental health issues, Brinkman said.

"Jails are not popular to talk about, but it you look at its function ... it's doing a lot," he said.

Thompson, like Nelson, said current discussions in the Legislature could significantly alter how county law enforcement deals with inmates. A DOC official recently talked with the author of a bill that would place a moratorium on creating new DOC rules. That would force the department to revert to rules from the mid-1980s, which would make it illegal to double-bunk prisoners, Thompson said.

Brinkman added that 90 percent of Minnesota counties double-bunks prisoners, and state's such as Nebraska are considering changing short-term offender status from one year to two years, which would allow the state to move more people from a prison to a county jail.

Stevens County current plan calls for the construction of 20 cells, which would allow it a capacity of 40 prisoners.

"That could have a huge impact on (Stevens County's) project," Thompson said. "It's a huge issue."