Inmate, Inmate, Who's Got the Inmate?

Under budgetary pressure, the state's prisons transfer costs—and prisoners—back to counties

As vehicles for shifting costs from one government agency's budget to another, nothing in recent Minnesota history has proven as efficient as the lowly criminal. Nobody wants to suggest letting the miscreants go, so the cost of their confinement tends to go unexamined. And even though we tend to think of them as rotting in the same cell for all eternity, they are in fact fairly mobile, moving back and forth between county jails, state prisons, and workhouses, each time shackling a different set of taxpayers with the cost of housing them.

The latest version of this gambit involves shipping a growing number of prisoners back to their home counties to be jailed largely at the expense of the locals. There's no doubt the practice is shoring up the state's bottom line. But the cost to Minnesota's most populous counties, which are being forced to make up the difference, is increasing. This year, Hennepin and Ramsey counties each expect to spend $1.5 million housing prisoners whose status made them the state's responsibility just a couple of years ago.

"This is just one of the things the state did when Tim Pawlenty said, 'No new taxes,'" says Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin. "It's just the state balancing the budget on the backs of the county."

In general terms, counties have historically been responsible for locking up two different kinds of inmates: detainees awaiting charges or trial, who get confined to county jails; and people sentenced to less than a year for relatively minor crimes, who do their time in county workhouses. Felons have traditionally repaid their debt to society in state prisons.

But faced with double-digit growth in the inmate population and overcrowded prisons, the state Department of Corrections asked the Legislature in 2003 to order Minnesota's counties to take over imprisoning felons with less than a year to serve. These so-called short-term offenders include parole violators and convicts sentenced to more than a year in prison but who, for a variety of reasons, will actually serve less.

The idea makes some sense. State prison intake and orientation programs are time-consuming and expensive, and corrections officials say short-term offenders aren't locked up long enough to benefit from prison-tailored treatment and education programs. And unlike those serving lengthy sentences, the short-term offenders are overwhelmingly drug users and repeat drunk drivers convicted under relatively new felony DWI provisions.

And the number of drug offenders going to prison has skyrocketed in recent years, the result of a combination of tough new sentencing laws and the advent of methamphetamine. Drug offenders now make up half of all Minnesota prisoners; one-fourth of them are imprisoned for meth-related crimes. At the same time, enhancements for such things as hate crimes, gang-related offenses, and domestic violence have added years to the sentences of violent offenders. Consequently, by 2010 the number of prisoners in Minnesota is projected to be more than 9,500—double the population of a decade earlier.

State corrections officials considered a number of options for dealing with the resulting overcrowding. Building a new, low-security prison to house the short-term offenders was rejected as too expensive; construction would have run $30-$40 million, and annual operating costs $15-$22 million. Minnesota does house some inmates in private, for-profit prisons, but has to pay full freight when it does. Sending the problem prisoners back to their home counties was the cheapest option, according to a 2003 department report to the Legislature.

"Prisons have been built to house serious, dangerous, long-term offenders," the report concluded. "Housing short-term offenders does not utilize prisons appropriately, nor is it a cost-effective or efficient manner to manage this type of offender. Local jurisdictions have developed programs and alternatives for this type of offender that can be better served in a community setting."

The report's very last bullet point: The Legislature should compensate counties for housing additional inmates. Caught up in a frenzy of cost cutting, in 2003 the Legislature adopted the first recommendation but appropriated only $1.2 million—a fraction of the money needed to reimburse counties for the shift. In the year after the change was enacted, the state saved more than $7 million—$2 million more than had been estimated.

The cost of the move for counties, however, has increased as quickly as the number of short-term offenders. In 2005, Hennepin provided nearly 17,000 "bed days," resulting in a shortfall of $1.2 million. Last year, 21,000 bed days cost county taxpayers $1.3 million. This year, county corrections officials estimate they will spend more than $1.5 million on 25,000 bed days.

Reimbursement isn't the only problem, either. Although the Hennepin County workhouse can accommodate 677 inmates, the county and the city of Plymouth, where the facility is located, have a longstanding agreement to limit the inmate population to 601 to minimize irritations like traffic and noise.

Right now, the state reimburses counties $9.66 for each short-term offender bed day. In Hennepin County, the actual cost of a bed day fluctuates. When the workhouse is operating near capacity, a cot can be had for a little less than $70 a day. When beds are empty, costs run upward of $81. The cost of a bed day in Ramsey County is $89. Anoka, St. Louis, and Dakota counties are also facing large shortfalls.

Making matters worse, a series of changes in state tax laws has meant that middle-class homeowners are paying a disproportionate share of the bill, McLaughlin adds. The nine counties most affected have put the issue at the top of the list of complaints they're taking to the Legislature this year. McLaughlin is optimistic, noting that Twin Cities-area reps Larry Pogemiller and Margaret Kelliher now head the Senate and the House, respectively. Both are Minneapolis DFLers and both have vowed to undo the cost shifts of recent years.

"It's like a perfect storm here. The people living in south Minneapolis and north Minneapolis in little bungalows are getting clobbered," says McLaughlin. "They [the state] got away with it in a crisis [because] most people are bewildered by the property tax system."

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