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Jail plans put away for now

Some improved jail population statistics have softened the blow from the county's failure to obtain state bonding money to build a Wadena County Justice Center, although the issue of jail space has not gone away, according to county officials, after an Aug. 2 special commissioner meeting.

Lane Waldahl, chairman of the Wadena County Board, said the county simply cannot afford the proposed $16 million structure and could not bond the money during the previous legislative session.

"There's just no way we can do it," he said. "I tried to tell the Legislature we are a poor county and we need help. We can't put the burden on taxpayers."

The county explored the idea of building the justice center including a jail, law enforcement and courts to provide more jail beds, additional storage, greater handicapped accessibility and increased security than what is available in the current court house.

Jail Administrator Tom Speed said the jail is operating at its maximum operating capacity, but the positive news is sentencing orders are down and the jail is not housing any prisoners in neighboring counties. He said the county had to board out an average of six to seven prisoners up until two months ago.

"I think it's really good news and took a lot of work from many people to get enough of a handle on our current jail population," County Commissioner Mary Harrison said about the statistics. "So hopefully we have bought some time."

Sheriff Mike Carr said meth was responsible for the increased jail population in recent years, and he credited sentenced to serve, education in schools and the shutting down of meth labs with the decrease in prisoners.

"I'm optimistic that we're getting a handle on some of the drug problem," he said.

The sentenced to serve program allows some individuals to avoid jail time, by remaining at home and paying their debt to society by being on work crews, he said. Prisoners must spend three days on sentenced to serve for every day they are in jail. Not all individuals on sentenced to serve avoid jail time entirely.

Although the county is not boarding out prisoners at the moment, Speed said, the jail lacks storage space and adequate room for prisoners. He said the jail averaged 22 inmates in 2005, which is its maximum operating capacity, and those numbers have held over the past year. The jail has 27 beds but can only house 22 prisoners at any one time due to Minnesota Department of Correction regulations. Twelve of the prisoners are under sentence and eight are on sentenced to serve or work release. Nine of the prisoners are waiting sentencing and one of these prisoners has been in custody for 26 months.

Carr said there are 28 individuals at their homes with sentencing orders ranging from 365 to two days waiting to serve their time in jail. Sentencing orders are given by the judge and include fines and the number of days in jail.

Regarding the jail numbers, Waldahl said: "We've still got a lot of them out there, but the numbers are going down. Will it stay like that? Heaven knows."

County Commissioner David Mattila said crime numbers go up and down, and in a short period of time the county will likely have to board out more prisoners. He said there are not the dollars to build a new jail right now, but he is sure the issue will need to come up again.

Carr said prisoners attempting to drag out their trials has been one of the biggest problems clogging up the jail. This year the courts have done a better job of moving more prisoners to state facilities earlier, he said.

Speed said prisoners try to extend their trials so they can avoid being sent to the Minnesota Correctional Facility in St. Cloud. He said prisoners who receive sentences of at least a year and a day are sent to St. Cloud.

Many prisoners want to stay in the Wadena County Jail long enough so their remaining jail time is 180 days or less, because the state institution does not accept short term offenders, according to Speed.

The Wadena County Jail was built in 1988, he said, for an operating capacity of 18 prisoners. Speed said it was built with no extra room and some double bunking has increased the bed count. While beds have been added, Speed said no additional lockers have been added for the extra prisoners. He said the jail staff has to store prisoners' personal belongings in bags tossed into the storage room, and prisoners have to use the bathroom as a changing room.

Jail equipment such as fingerprint machines, printers and the intoxilator all have to be stored in his office, he said, which doubles as the booking room.

"We're stuck with it for right now," Speed said about the current jail situation. "Until we can get some office space and more storage space."

Waldahl said the county is waiting to renovate the Wensman building, which houses the Friendly Rider Transit System buses, before deciding how to proceed with any renovation plans for the court house. He said the Wensman building will not help with jail space, but it does have two rooms that will provide storage for other court house needs including paper records and voting equipment.

Changes in security at the court house entrance are a must, according to Waldahl, and will probably include metal detectors.

"It's happening all over the state," he said about government safety requirements. "They're not going to let us out."

The decision to abandon the justice center plans for the time being relieved community members who attended the meeting, while the cost of the architectural plans angered some individuals.

Norman Hillukka, candidate for District Five County Commissioner, said Wadena is a small county and could not afford the high taxes that would have accompanied the building of the justice center without state funding.

"I hear good news that we are looking at what we can afford," he said.

Bev Finnegan, who lives north of Wadena, said, she thinks the $129,200 the county spent on plans for the center would have been better spent improving the fairgrounds and on roads and highways.

Harrison said at the time the county began looking into the justice center, the situation at the jail looked deplorable while adding that the county is statutorily obligated to house prisoners.

"It took $129,000 to find out we couldn't afford it," Waldahl said explaining the cost of hiring an architect and planning the center. "We found out we can't do it."