County will keep sentence to serve program

Published 6:40 am Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A program that puts inmates to work on community projects will likely continue in Mower County through this year, but the program’s future is less certain after that.

The Mower County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted to fund 75 percent of the Sentence to Serve Program (STS), allowing it to continue through this year. However, the commissioners cautioned the program — like many others — could be cut in the future if budget issues persist.

The program was originally cut from Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s preliminary budget, but partial state funding was reinstated in the final budget. In the past, the county and the state both paid half of the $75,590 program budget. Under the new budget, counties that wish to continue STS will fund 75 percent of the program — an increase of about $18,897 in Mower County. The state will pick up the remaining 25 percent. The additional cost was added to the 2010 budget.

The state will also allow the counties to continue using the vehicles and equipment already in place.

Since 1986, STS has been a program that puts prisoners and people on probation to work on a number of community projects, like bridge maintenance, snow removal, and brush and tree trimming. The crews often work at the Mower County Fairgrounds, the Historical Society, and they help maintain area cemeteries.

Steve King, director of Mower County Correctional Services, described the program as a shining star of corrections. King said programs like STS are an important part of operating a jail safe.

“You want guys out there who are productive, who are out burning some energy off during the day, and feel good about themselves,” he said.

Aside from crew leader Bill Klingerman, none of the STS participants are paid. However, inmates do have a day reduced from their sentence for each day they serve. King said the Mower County Jail reduced collective jail sentences by 1,176 inmate days in 2009 because of STS.

Last year, King said STS crews did 5,634 hours of work on county projects and 1,931 hours on state projects. If the workers had been paid $6 an hour for their services, King estimated the value of their work at $45,492 in 2009.

While he admitted these services were beneficial to the community, Mower County Coordinator Craig Oscarson said Mower County and the city of Austin would not have to fund all these services if the STS program ended.

Commissioner David Hillier said the work is therapeutic for the prisoners since it gets them out of their cells, and he said it’s beneficial work to the area.

“They get real work done, there’s no doubt about that,” Commissioner David Hillier said.

While some of the commissioners described the decision to continue STS now as a “no brainer,” the program could become the victim of future cuts.

Oscarson said the county projects to have cuts of more than $300,000 next year and then again the following year. Commissioner Dick Lang said that once such cuts occur, the county will have to cut beneficial programs like STS.

To help meet the increased $18,897 of the STS program, the board also approved an increase from $16 to $19 a day on electronic home monitoring sentences. However, Commissioner Ray Tucker cautioned that the number of people sentenced to home monitoring may be reduced after the new jail opens.