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Minnesota Legislature

Short-term sentenced offenders could remain in county jail, not go to prison

Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell testifies before the House Corrections Division on HF3671 to authorize that prisoners with 90 days or less remaining on their terms be placed in a county jail or detention center. Photo by Paul Battaglia

Rep. Marion O'Neill (R-Maple Lake) spoke to about 20 correctional officers on Tuesday and some of them talked about working 16-hour shifts and then sleeping in their cars, fishing shacks, prison staff rooms or weight rooms because they don’t have time to drive home before their next shift.

One lives in Rockford and works in the Lino Lakes prison, and sometimes sleeps in a car between shifts.

“For some of them it’s been two years — two years of grinding it out,” O'Neill said. “We are at an absolute breaking point in the DOC.”

Minnesota’s prisons are understaffed by about 128 officers, Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell acknowledged at a House Corrections Division meeting Wednesday. But he said proposed legislation that would allow some prisoners to remain in county jails rather than be transferred to state prisons when they have less than 90 days to serve would help with overcrowding and understaffing.

Sponsored by Rep. Dan Wolgamott (DFL-St. Cloud), HF3671 would allow that. Counties would not be obligated to enter such contracts.

The bill was approved by the division and sent to the House Floor. Sen. Warren Limmer (R-Maple Grove) sponsors its companion, SF388, which awaits action by the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee.

Corrections officials are requesting the change to better manage the prison population. Due to backlogs in the criminal justice process and some prisoners’ inability to bail out of jail, after a prisoner is sentenced and gets credit for time served, they sometimes only have a few weeks or months left in custody. Last year about 500 new prisoners had less than 90 days to serve, Schnell said.

Schnell said it makes more sense to leave some of those short-term inmates in county jails rather than transfer long-term inmates to jails. On Jan. 1, 238 of Minnesota’s 9,381 prisoners were serving their time in either a county jail or federal prison. County jails are reimbursed $57.50 per day to house state prisoners, a number that will increase to $60 beginning July 1, 2020.

With prisons understaffed and “massive churn” in the prison population, inmates who come in for a short time often displace those who’ll be incarcerated longer, and prisons were designed to hold people for at least a year, Schnell said. He added that the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association supports the bill.

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