Empty jail space in Minnesota countiesby Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public Radio
Some county jails around the state have empty cells. Dozens of counties built new jails or added on over the past few years because of overcrowding. Inmates were two to a cell and even sleeping on floors. But now, many counties say there's a decline in the need for jail space.
Park Rapids, Minn. — This state-of-the-art jail facility in Park Rapids has enough beds to hold 116 prisoners. But on this day there are only 34.
Jail Administrator Sherri Klasen says that means lots of empty cells, as she tours a jail wing.
"This is a typical double-bunk cell," Klasen said. "Pretty sparse. That's the toilet."
When this facility was built in 2006, there were high hopes it would draw overflow prisoners from around the region, and help Hubbard County make some money from its neighbors.
But that isn't happening. The overcrowding from just a few years ago disappeared.
In fact, Minnesota Department of Correction figures show the number of prisoners in county jails is down three and a half percent.
So Klasen has been shopping the jail around, sending out teletypes and emails, to county, state, and even federal corrections agencies.
So far, no luck.
"With the population down everywhere, I periodically make contact just to let them know that we're still out there, but I don't want to contact them so much that I become a pest," she said.
Empty jail cells often mean a big loss in revenue for counties trying to pay for new jail construction, especially since larger jails typically require more personnel to run them.
In Hubbard County, some officials say without that outside revenue, it would actually be cheaper for them to shut the jail down and send their inmates elsewhere.
Hubbard County Commissioner and former County Attorney Greg Larson says that's unlikely to happen. Still, he and others wonder what's going on.
It appears that region-wide, fewer people are going to jail.
"One of the things that was not foreseen was a downturn in business. The numbers I see from the courts indicate the courts are less busy than they were a few years ago," Larson said. "There is less of a workload, and other counties are experiencing the same thing."
Crime statistics aren't available yet for 2008, but Larson says that in the first half of last year, criminal court cases in Hubbard County were down nearly 25 percent from the year before. Civil cases, meanwhile, have continued to rise.
There's lots of speculation as to why jail populations are down.
Some say the state has a better handle on the meth problem that plagued communities a few years ago. Others wonder if perhaps it's due to an aging population. The children of baby boomers are growing beyond the age when they're most likely to commit crimes.
Eighty miles away in Crow Wing County, the story is the same.
The county has a jail facility with 286 beds, but more than a third of them are empty. Daily populations are about 50 inmates less than when the jail opened two years ago.
The number of prisoners Crow Wing County houses for the state has also dropped, and so has their revenue.
Jail administrator Jerry Negen believes one reason for the decrease in inmates is that the courts are increasingly finding alternatives to jail time for law breakers. There's a big push for more specialized programs that reduce jail time in favor of more treatment and court supervision.
"They've got 30 plus people in our drug court right now that are doing well, so there's 30 people out of custody that they report to drug court," Negen said. "We also have in Crow Wing County DWI court... So there's another 15 to 20 on that. So there's where our numbers went, we believe."
The apparent recent drop in crime is surprising to Jim Franklin, director of the Minnesota Sheriff's Association.
Franklin says less crime and underpopulated jails is not what he would expect during a time of deepening recession.
"When you have a bad economy, statistically speaking, crime trends tend to go up. What we don't know is that this appears to be almost the opposite for the moment," Franklin said. "We don't know if it's the lull between the storm, or before the storm... It's kind of an unusual circumstance that we find ourselves looking at at the moment."
That circumstance that puts big financial pressure on counties that count on housing prisoners for revenue. As competition for inmates heats up, some counties have even dropped the daily rates they charge for holding inmates.
- All Things Considered, 03/13/2009, 3:54 p.m.