Committee considers options for jail overcrowding

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 12, 2003

Picture this …. the Mower County criminal justice center opens for business.

Located smack dab in the middle of the Austin Business Development Park (also known as the Cook farm site), the center is a new state-of-the-art facility. It houses criminal court, court administration, probation and corrections services and a jail.

Or, picture this … a two-story building, where Robbins Furniture and Design Gallery and two other businesses were once located. It houses the new Mower County Jail connected by a skyway from the government center in downtown Austin.

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Or, picture whatever solution to Mower County's jail over-crowding and criminal court security issues there is. Perhaps a caravan of law enforcement cars escorting vans back and forth between jails at Osage, Iowa, Owatonna and Albert Lea.

The Mower County jail study committee has been assembled to recommend solutions to the Mower County Board.

Committee meets for the first time

The first jail study committee meeting was held in the government center Wednesday evening.

Garry Ellingson and Richard P. Cummings, members of the county board's building committee, chaired the inaugural meeting.

"Space -- not prisoners -- is the real issue here," Ellingson, 5th District county commissioner, announced at the start of the meeting. "The jail was built 50 years ago to house 72 prisoners. Times change and so do regulations and now we only have room for 45 prisoners."

One of the reasons is the price-tag for a new jail. Ellingson estimated it at $18 million or more.

Presently, Mower County rents beds at the Mitchell County, Iowa, jail in Osage to house overflow prisoners and has recently contracted with Steele County for more beds at its new jail in Owatonna.

Boarding out prisoners is considered a drain on the county's fragile financial situation and with the state budget shortfall's anticipated impact ahead, that drain can be ill afforded.

Many options considered

One option is to keep the current jail and continue to board out prisoners elsewhere. Another option would be to build new facilities in the downtown Austin area near the government center. The third option would be to build off-site.

Presently, the jail is located on the top floor of the south wing of the government center and over the adjoining Austin-Mower County law enforcement center.

Criminal court facilities are on the top floor of the courthouse. Probation, corrections offices and court administration are located on the street level floor.

The county board authorized a $4.4 million renovation of the government center in 1994-95, including courtroom and related spaces.

In 1988-1990, the county board acquired 18,000 square feet in a strip mall along N. Main Street and moved the county human services, veterans services and public health nursing services to the location, freeing up the space for Third Judicial District Court judges and their staffs.

'Common thread' unravels system

Last week's first meeting was a discussion on a variety of criminal justice related subjects.

Bob Roche, jail administrator, noted the irony of the over-crowding situation.

"Now, the Department of Corrections allows us 45 prisoner beds at the max," he said. "However, they also want us to operate at 70 percent of our capacity or just 36 beds because of their regulations."

New rules for housing prisoners being considered would reduce the functional capacity of the jail -- as it is presently configured -- to only 25 beds, Roche said.

The jail study's findings call for a jail with a maximum capacity of 90 or 134 beds. It would be modular, not the linear design of the current jail.

Several committee members said the methamphetamine drug has changed everything in the criminal justice system.

"Meth is the common thread between jail issues and court security issues and everything else," said Patrick W. Flanagan, Mower County Attorney.

The number of meth related court cases grows and has turned the prisoner population from an "alcohol related society to a methamphetamine dominated society," Sheriff Terese Amazi said.

But District Court Judge Donald Rysavy said alcohol's impact on the criminal justice system threatens to grow as well. That will occur when the new law requiring one-year mandatory jail time for all re-offenders who have already had three DWI arrests in 10 years, he said.

Offenders are using weapons more often, their crimes are more violent and the violence doesn't end when they are incarcerated, the prosecutor, police and other law enforcement voices said.

Paulette Clark, a former veteran probation officer, who now teaches criminal justice courses at Riverland Community College, said over-crowding is impacting correctional services. Formerly, probation officers could order an offender be placed in jail on an immediate 72-hour hold for violating probation.

"That's no longer possible," Clark said.

Oscarson inserted some of the county's hired consultants' jail study findings. "If we build a new jail for Mower County, 90 percent of the expenses will be operational costs and only 10 percent will be building costs," he said.

According to the jail study, that means boarding out is the cheapest option, building downtown is the next least expense and building off-site is the most expensive.

Other issues brought up

Austin Police Chief Paul M. Phillip said there are "other related issues" to the jail issue. Those include courtroom security and space and the looming decision on the future of the county's DHS. Will it remain where it is along N. Main Street or will it be moved, because of the possibility the building could be sold?

Oscarson said the county board added space for courts and improved security with the latest remodeling.

"We knew at the time we were doing the best we could with the money we had," Rysavy said.

On the subject of boarding out prisoners, Ellingson volunteered, "I don't like it. It's like paying rent and it's a short-term solution at best."

As the discussion wore on, Oscarson told the committee members, "We shouldn't worry about money. We shouldn't worry about how much it will cost or making the most popular decision. We should worry about choosing the best option."

Amazi didn't like the off-site option unless everything -- courts and all -- go with the jail.

"I have enough trouble getting people safely down a hallway let alone transporting them to another site," she said.

Rysavy said the many classifications of prisoners make boarding out offenders unworkable.

The current over-crowding issue has resulted in a near "go to jail on a space available basis," according to the committee members. That means more offenders are released on their own recognizance after being found guilty of a crime or sentenced to electronic home-monitoring, That, in turn, means, "we have more dangerous offenders on the streets," Roche said.

Among the citizen-at-large members, the feelings expressed were that the committee must move quickly.

The committee members agreed to attempt to finish their work in five or six months.

At that time, Ellingson said, the committee would take its own findings to the people of Mower County and conduct an education and awareness campaign. Then, the public input and the jail study committee findings would be submitted to the building committee, who, in turn, would make a recommendation to the entire Mower County Board.

That recommendation could be heard sometime next spring at the earliest.

Next meeting

The next meeting on July 23 will include an inspection of current criminal justice and jail facilities.

The committee members all serve without compensation. Mileage reimbursement is allowed for those who qualify for it.

All of the meetings are scheduled, at this time, in the county commissioners meeting room and open to the public.

At the first session, the only citizens present were Mike and Donna Robbins, son and mother, and owners of the Robbins Furniture and Design Gallery property.

Lee Bonorden can be contacted at 434-2232 or by e-mail at