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Regional jail idea gaining momentum

Wadena County is now part of an 11-county effort to develop a West Central Chemical Dependency Treatment and Correctional Center.

The county board passed a motion Oct. 19 to join a steering committee to study the feasibility of the regional facility.

"I see no downside to us joining this effort," said Commissioner Bill Stearns.

County Attorney Kyra Ladd voiced support for the idea to the board. "Hopefully Wadena County will be proactive and progressive as opposed to reacting to things down the line," she said.

Small counties struggle to deal with treatment issues related to methamphetamine and other chemical dependency, she said. It is a good idea for counties to gather together and spread out the cost.

Sheriff Mike Carr agreed that participating in a regional correctional facility is a good idea.

Discussions for the facility began more than a year ago with officials in Clay and Stevens counties, according to Pope County Commissioner Robert McCrory, chair of the WCTCC project. The counties are concerned that most prisoners don't get chemical dependency treatment, although most of them have a chemical dependency problem, he said.

Stearns said Wadena County became interested in the facility after a conversation he had with Clay County Commissioner Kevin Campbell. Wadena County had looked at building its own general population jail. The WCTCC, however, will focus on a specific kind of inmate, who are primarily addicts rather than criminals, he said.

"The basis of a drug court or treatment facility is that people that go are alcohol and drug addicts that have committed a crime," Stearns said. "The people that go [to a treatment facility] are not hardened criminals who use drugs."

Wadena County cannot provide this kind of treatment on its own, he said. The amount of prisoners Wadena County could send is minimal, because the courts have to identify people who will likely respond to treatment. All of the counties together can come up with a population to fill the facility, he said.

Riaz Aziz, Pope County coordinator, said not every county has a large enough need to justify its own treatment and corrections facility.

"However, it's nice to know there's a facility out there that you are a part of and have access to if you need that facility," he said.

Sheriff candidates Ron Noon and Mike Carr Jr. each said that they are in favor of exploring the cost effectiveness and practicality of a regional treatment and corrections facility.

Ron Noon said Wadena has been left "as an island on its own" after previous regional jail discussions have failed and neighboring counties have added onto their own jails.

Carr said sometimes just putting people with chemical dependency problems in a typical jail doesn't fix the problem, especially with methamphetamine. It only takes one use to be addicted to meth, he said. It is an expensive addiction and many people start stealing to pay for the drug.

It's a problem Carr said affects everyone including taxpayers and social services. When he first began doing child protection investigations eight years ago, 20-30 percent of those cases were meth-related and now 80-90 percent of them are, he said.

Minneapolis-based Boarman Kross Vogel Group did a needs assessment for the 10 counties that were involved before Wadena joined. It gathered Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension statistics on overall inmate bookings, as well as narcotics, DUI and liquor law arrests. The group also gathered information from each county's sheriff's office.

The needs assessment found that "chemical dependency treatment needs continue to increase throughout the state of Minnesota as a whole as well as the 10-county region specifically, while jail populations are increasing significantly within the 10-county region -- often exacerbated by inmates with meth dependency or other chemical dependency issues."

Minnesota records are limited to statistics about people incarcerated for alcohol or illegal substance offenses and do not address people incarcerated for non-substance offenses that have chemical dependency characteristics. So the reports said the projections for chemically dependent inmates are conservative.

The other counties who are interested in developing the WCTCC are Becker, Clay, Douglas, Grant, Otter Tail, Pope, Stevens, Todd, Traverse and Wilkin,

"We're very happy that Wadena jumped in," McCrory said. "We just feel that the more counties we have involved, the more chance we have of getting state funding."

The Minnesota Supreme Court has suggested that counties work together to stop the "revolving door" at county jails, he said.

Wadena County has committed $4,389 toward the $65,000 cost of evaluating what kind of population will be treated, space needs, the site of the facility, administration and support staff needs as well as how the secure and non-secure portion of the facility will work interactively, Aziz said. They will also develop a business plan to determine who will own and operate the facility.

The next step, he said, is to request approximately $150,000 to $200,000 in non-construction funds from the state during the 2007 legislative calendar. The counties will also have to get permission from the legislature to establish a multi-jurisdictional correctional facility. Phase four will be the actual construction of the building, assuming that the previous steps are completed to everyone's satisfaction, he said. The counties will seek federal and state funds for the construction and running of the facility.

Aziz said that the WCTCC is still in a very early discussion phase.

Wadena County has been involved with regional jails talks for nearly a decade, Stearns said, but this is this first one he has seen that might get done.

McCrory said, "It's a slow process, as anything in government is."