by CHRIS ROGERS
Three-and-a-half months since it was created, the Winona County Jail Planning Committee is almost ready for its first meeting. Late last month, the Winona County Board hired a consultant to facilitate the group’s work, and county administrator Ken Fritz said that its first meeting would be scheduled soon.
The 24-member committee will be charged with determining what Winona County needs in a jail and weighing the costs and benefits of different approaches to meeting those needs. The committee’s work will be a preliminary step in the process that could lead to the construction of a new jail or, potentially, to a long-term arrangement for outsourcing inmates or some combination of the two. The county has already conducted studies of its existing jail and criminal justice system. The end result of this committee’s work will be a report called a “needs assessment,” which would then be used, potentially, to guide the design of a new jail’s actual layout; to establish a plan for long-term outsourcing; or some other plan for the future of Winona County incarceration.
The committee was formed because Winona County has to do something with its jail. After years of bad marks on state inspections, the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) announced in December 2016 that it would sanction the Winona County Jail until the county did something to address the jail’s code violations. Last September, the DOC revoked the jail’s status as a full-fledged jail and downgraded it to a “90-day lockup,” meaning that Winona County has to export inmates held for over 90 days. Fritz confirmed that the DOC has said that if the county does nothing, the state will impose progressively harsher sanctions, including, potentially, totally shutting down the jail.
Jail planning is more complicated that it might seem. A county’s jail — or lack thereof — influences the entire criminal justice system. Since 2007, the Winona County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council’s (CJCC) programs to divert low-level offenses away from incarceration and prevent recidivism among released inmates helped the county avoid the need for a larger jail. Recently, some County Board members have said that promoting better mental health care and other criminal justice system reforms — such as programs to help soon-to-be-released inmates get education, work, and housing — should be a priority for the jail planning process. County Board member Marcia Ward has pushed for the county to consider having no jail and exporting all of its inmates and to have the costs and benefits of exporting inmates versus housing them locally studied by the committee.
To lead this work, the County Board hired La Crosse resident Tom Weber, a veteran of jail planning efforts across the U.S. Fritz explained in previous interviews that the county did not have a large budget for jail planning consultants, but facilitating the committee’s work was beyond what sheriff’s department staff were well-equipped to do. So, Fritz and the sheriff’s department found an alternative: hire a local consultant, without spending many tens of thousands of dollars, who would be responsible, primarily, for directing traffic. Under the contract, Weber will be responsible for advising county staff on what data to collect, guiding the committee’s discussions and decisions, and coordinating the delegation of work among committee members and staff. “The ideal way is to have him lay out the outline and say, ‘We need these different things and different information or discussion about this,’ and then have that translated into the needs assessment,” Fritz explained. However, if the committee members and staff cannot tackle all of the work required, the contract states that Weber will. That would affect the cost. In a memo to the County Board, Fritz said that Weber’s contract would likely cost $15,000-$20,000, depending on how much work the committee does compared to how much Weber has to do.
Fritz said that he hopes this process will be more collaborative and give more input to the local agencies and stakeholders represented on the committee rather than simply having a consultant turn over loads of information and recommendations for the committee to approve.
Weber estimated that the committee’s work should take six to nine months, with half-day meetings once a month. “Since I haven’t been in [a jail planning process] like this, it seems like kind of an aggressive goal,” Fritz admitted.
The County Board unanimously approved Weber’s contract last week. Keep reading the Winona Post for more on this story.