County plans for future of criminal justice


(3/20/2017)

by CHRIS ROGERS

 

Winona County leaders agreed: the county will likely need to build some kind of new jail facility to replace its substandard lock-up. But how to layout bars and walls inside a new jail is far from the only question facing the Winona County Board. As it plans for a new jail facility, the board is not just designing a building, but deciding what criminal justice in Winona County will look like. Brick and mortar is not the only thing up for debate.

Programs and staff to rehabilitate offenders, divert low-level defendants and convicts away from being jailed, and to prevent recidivism could go a long way to further reduce crime and the number of jail cells Winona County needs, local criminal justice leaders told the County Board last month. Meanwhile, some County Board members said that exporting inmates to neighboring counties with excess jail capacity might help Winona County avoid spending unnecessary dollars on a big, new local jail.

Winona County’s current jail has not been up to state code for years. It is not handicapped accessible. It has very little space for recreation, classes, and other rehabilitative programming, and its medical exam room is too small, among other problems. Last fall, the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) issued sanctions against the jail — barring it from holding inmates for longer than 90 days and restricting its ability to hold female inmates. County staff said that if the county did not do anything, the DOC would eventually shut down the jail completely. Since those sanctions, Winona County has increased the number of inmates it houses in Houston and Wabasha county jails and the County Board began the early stages of planning for a new jail.

Late last month, members of Winona County’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC) gave the County Board a primer on how the local criminal justice system works. At CJCC meetings, prosecutors, police officers, defense attorneys, jailers, social workers, elected leaders, and citizens all get together to iron out problems with the local criminal justice system. Since its creation in 2007, the group has already helped the county avoid building a big, expensive new jail once, by cutting the number of people being locked up in Winona County. The County Board and the CJCC reduced the jail population by supporting a raft of criminal justice programs, including a drug court that steers non-violent offenders toward treatment, a work-release program that helps low-security inmates keep their jobs while incarcerated, and the CARE Program, which helps soon-to-be-released inmates get the education, jobs, and housing they need to be successful and avoid coming back to jail.

 

Who’s in jail?

The Winona County Jail is not just full of newly arrested drunk drivers sobering up before a court date and convicted offenders serving time. A lot of the people in the Winona County Jail are there waiting for a judge or jury to rule whether they are guilty or innocent. In 2016, 170 inmates fell into that “pre-trial” category and together that racked up 4,319 jail bed days (one inmate jailed for 24 hours equals one jail bed day), according to Winona County Jail records. It was not possible to determine what percentage of all inmates were pre-trial inmates because the available jail records sometimes put a single inmate into two categories and the jail’s records of total jail bed days (across all categories) may count a single inmate twice. It also was not clear if the available records included inmates exported to Wabasha and Houston county jails, but in any case, pre-trial inmates make up a large portion of the jail population. The only other category of inmates with more jail bed days in 2016 was sentenced inmates, according to the available records. Two-hundred twenty-eight inmates logged 6,377 jail bed days serving sentences in 2016.

“Pre-sentence” inmates — people who were convicted but were waiting for the court to decide their sentence — made up the next largest category, with 219 inmates serving 4,086 jail bed days.

Inmates jailed because of a probation violation or drug court monitoring violation served 1,151 jail bed days in 2016.

The jail also holds a smaller but steady flow of people who have been newly arrested but not yet charged. Police can only hold citizens for a short time without filing charges. There were 548 inmates who served 548 jail bed days in this category in 2016.

Inmates arrested on bench warrants — arrest warrants issued by a judge for someone who failed to appear in court or failed to make child support payments — made up a smaller portion of the jail population: 419 jail bed days in 2016.

 

CJCC: programs could reduce jail population

In the U.S., people are considered innocent until proven guilty, and the only reason citizens are supposed to be jailed before being convicted is if they pose a risk to public safety or a risk of running away, CJCC Coordinator Kalene Engel said. Unfortunately, many times citizens are jailed before being convicted simply because they cannot afford bail or other release conditions, Engel stated. She and some other CJCC members have pushed for the creation of a pre-trial services program in Winona County that would work to get more alleged offenders released prior to conviction, if appropriate.

Winona County Jail Program Coordinator Ben Klinger shared a true story about a local inmate who was arrested for possession of methamphetamine and thrown in jail. Jane Smith — a fictionalized name Klinger gave the woman — did not have a serious criminal record, just a few petty offenses, so after a bail evaluation study, the court gave her permission to be released if she wore a patch that would allow authorities to check if she started using drugs again. The patch costs $130 and under the current system, alleged offenders must pay for it themselves. Smith could not afford it, so she was jailed at an estimated cost to the county of around $140 per day.

“Why wouldn’t we have to pay for [the patch]?” asked Winona County Board member Marcia Ward. Compared to the cost of jailing Jane Smith, the patch would have quickly paid for itself, Ward pointed out.

Klinger responded, “A lot of times that’s done through a pre-trial services department [in counties where] there are budgets for that. We don’t have that.” 

Klinger continued with the story. By the time the court sentenced Jane Smith she already served more days in jail then she was sentenced to, so she was released, but in the meantime she had lost her job and health insurance.

“That’s a critical gap in the system in my mind,” Engel said of pre-trial services. In an interview, Engel said that pre-trial services and other programs could go a long way to further reduce the jail population, potentially saving the county money on jailing and reducing the number of cells needed in a new jail facility.

CARE Program Coordinator Latrisha Green spoke about the opportunity for CARE Program and jail staff to be trained on cognitive therapy skills that could help jail staff teach inmates to make good choices for themselves, and it could work here, Green said. Engel also discussed the idea of a mental health court — something other counties have instituted — to divert offenders away from jail and toward mental health treatment, when appropriate.

 

CJCC: county needs to fund existing programs

While new programs might be able to help the county save money on jail costs, the County Board also needs to fund the existing programs, CJCC members said. For the past eight years, state and federal grants have funded the CARE Program. The grant-making agencies said the grants are intended as “seed money,” not permanent funding, and eventually the county needs to either fund the program with local tax dollars or cut it.

Last fall, the CJCC won a $250,000 federal grant to set up local programs to help improve mental health care for inmates and help steer citizens toward mental health treatment instead of incarceration. That funding is also temporary.

CJCC members have called for the county to fund the staff needed to run existing and new programs. They have also called for the new jail facility to include space for such programs, not just cells. The county could take a huge chunk out of its budget by investing in programs to reduce incarceration, but that is not possible with the current facility’s space limitations, Winona Public Defenders’ Office Managing Attorney Michael Kuehn said at a February 23 CJCC subcommittee meeting.

Those grant-funded programs have helped reduce Winona County’s jail population, but if the county builds a relatively small new jail based on that population and then cuts the programs, it will need a bigger jail, added Winona County Community Services Supervisor Karen Bunkowski.

 

County Board reactions

“It seems obvious to me that programming is really a big part of the solution and we have to make programming space available and programs available to break the cycle in a lot of these cases,” Winona County Board Chair Jim Pomeroy said in an interview. Pomeroy and County Board members Marie Kovecsi and Greg Olson have been supportive of CJCC programs in the past, and Kovecsi helped prepare the CJCC’s presentation to the board. 

If programs have a good track record of reforming offenders and helping them become tax-paying citizens, it an easy decision to support them, Pomeroy continued. “The key is to have the best possible outcome for the folks that frequent our jail to reduce recidivism, do it in a cost-effective manner, and reduce the need for resources down the road,” he added.

Keeping taxes down is a primary concern for Ward and County Board member Steve Jacob. They have been more skeptical that spending on programs to reduce jailing costs will save the county money.

Winona County has invested more in such programs than neighboring counties, Jacob said in an interview. “I think there’s a lot of merit to that train of thought,” he stated. However, Jacob continued, “My job is to sort out both the needs as presented by professional staff with the needs of the taxpayer who has to pick up the bill.”

Jacob added, “One thing I have gotten from a number of constituents is definitely do the right thing with making sure that … we’re doing what we can to not have re-offenses, but what they’ve told me is that they don’t want Winona County to become a soft place for criminals to land — almost a safe harbor for people. There’s that balance that needs to happen.”

Asked about whether rehabilitative programs provide a “safe harbor” for criminals, Engel said, “The alternative would be to just lock them up and do nothing to them and let them out and hope that something has happened to them in there that they do not the behaviors that got them in there in the first place.”

At the February 28 meeting, Ward expressed interest in investing in programs to prevent crime and incarceration. She asked whether focusing on children might be a more effective use of resources than trying to rehabilitate adults.

Ward and Jacob have also discussed the potential to make exporting inmates part of a long-term plan for Winona County’s criminal justice system. If Wabasha and Houston counties have excess space, maybe Winona County could save money by exporting more inmates, rather than building more local cells, they suggested.

In late May, jail planning experts from the National Institute of Corrections will come to Winona to give county officials a three-day training on how to set the process to evaluate the county’s needs and plan a new facility. County officials said it will likely be years before a new facility is built. “We’re still in the preliminary, gathering information stages,” Jacob said.

 

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