Rep. Patricia Mueller: Community solutions to overflowing jails

Published 8:02 pm Friday, October 22, 2021

On Friday, Oct. 15, I hosted a meeting about expanding a pilot program aimed at giving nonviolent offenders community options rather than jail time when no new crimes had been committed in Mower County. 

Several local law enforcement leadership attended the meeting including Mower County Sheriff Steve Sandvik, Austin Police Chief McKichan, Mower County Judge Christa Daily, Austin Mayor Steve King, who is also the Director of the Department of Corrections, and Jack Wittkopp from Independent Management Services. Representative Marion O’Neill from Wright County, who is the chief author of the pilot program, generously traveled to Austin to explain and answer questions.

The program, called Alternatives to Incarceration, was first implemented in Anoka County in 2017 and expanded to Wright and Crow Wing Counties this year. It requires probation and parole officers to find community options, like addiction resources and counseling, rather than sending individuals to prison in response to technical violations where no new crime had been committed. During the latest report to the legislators from the Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Committee, this program so far has shown to have an 85% success rate.

In speaking with law enforcement across our district, I have repeatedly heard about the dramatic spike in police calls involving mental health crises and drug abuse. While attending city council meetings across Mower County, law enforcement reported that the jail is full and even the intake process is stretched to capacity.  On Oct. 2, Sheriff Sandvik spoke to the Austin Daily Herald of the crowded Mower County jail due to mental health and chemical addiction. Including Mower County in the Alternatives to Incarceration program would allow the county to find creative rehabilitation solutions, rather than extending the cycle of incarceration for offenders with mental health and drug abuse issues. By the end of the hour-long meeting, all those who attended felt optimistic about how this program could bring needed funds to alleviate the stretched staff at both the jails and the Department of Corrections.  I am proud to author this legislation to expand this program to include Mower County in the 2022 legislative session.

To be clear, this program is not offered to violent offenders. In recent weeks we’ve seen violent offenders who were let off with light sentences only to hurt or kill people when they should have been in jail. Those who are a danger to others should not be free to continue committing serious crimes.  

The Alternatives to Incarceration pilot program has broad bipartisan backing in the Legislature, and I look forward to bringing local partners  together to work on what’s best for people in need, without lessening consequences for violent offenders.