Chris Rogers, editor, Winona Post


I have a lot of respect for Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman, but I have to take issue with her office’s recent statement on the county’s consideration of a juvenile detention facility.

“There are currently no plans in place to use the old jail space as a juvenile detention facility or, for that matter, build a juvenile detention facility in Winona County,” according to a memo posted to the Winona County Attorney’s Office Facebook page on Feb 24. It quickly became the only source for a front-page article in the Winona Daily News proclaiming, “No plans to convert or use old jail.”

Compare that to the county’s own minutes from the Jail Design and Construction Committee meeting in January, on which Sonneman sits: “County met with DOC [Department of Corrections] to review potential juvenile holding solutions … The existing Jail Annex may be used for this function.” The annex is part of the existing jail. The committee got into some of the details of design considerations, like an estimate that the county would need 6-8 juvenile beds and the fact that rec. rooms in the planned new adult jail could also be used for a juvenile facility, while other parts of the two facilities would have to remain separate. 

Compare this “no plans” claim to 2019, when the County Board asked the legislature for $5 million for a juvenile detention facility, or the design concepts developed last fall for a juvenile facility attached to the new jail, or the County Board’s vote this past December to direct county staff to continue studying a juvenile detention facility. As you can read in editions of our paper going back years, the county has been considering a juvenile detention facility for a long time. Those discussions have gotten more serious of late.

For the county, a local facility would solve an immediate problem: When youth have to be detained, jail staff are forced to scramble to find a detention facility with open beds. Usually that facility is hours away, making it very hard for family to visit, and forcing jail staff to shuttle juveniles back and forth from far-flung facilities to Winona court hearings at great taxpayer expense.

Some citizens question whether all of these children really need to be detained in the first place. Are there better solutions? What could $5 million do for youth mental health services and substance abuse treatment and prevention? 

There are valid arguments for and against a local juvenile justice facility. But if the public thinks there are “no plans,” it shuts down a conversation we should be having.

To Sonneman’s credit, at a recent meeting, she clarified she meant “no immediate plans.” I appreciate her trying to assure the public that creation of a juvenile facility is not imminent. It’s not. As opposed to a new adult jail — which the county is racing toward construction on — the plans for a juvenile detention facility are still conceptual. But if estimating bed numbers and mapping out a possible shared rec. room don’t count as “plans,” my dictionary must be outdated.

Beyond semantics, this is exactly the phase when the public should have a chance to learn about and have a say in what the county does.

This winter we saw an outpouring of public feedback on the adult jail project — the most in years of planning — from citizens on the left and right, but it came less than 12 months away from the current jail’s closure deadline and after the county had already borrowed $10 million for construction. It was the 11th hour and, the County Board majority felt, too late.

The public needs to know about the county’s plans for juvenile detention now, precisely because those plans are not yet set in stone. Now is exactly the time for Winona County as a community to discuss juvenile justice — before the county commits millions to a facility.