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Wadena County Jail overflowing with people in custody

For the past two months, the Wadena County Sheriff's Department has had to send some of its inmates to other jails, due to lack of space. It has been several years since this was necessary.

Sheriff Mike Carr told us in a telephone interview on March 19 that he has been boarding out between 8 and 10 people per day since January. The cost for out-of-county boarding was $3,246 as of March 19.

The Wadena County Jail has 27 beds, but may only use 23 of them because of Minnesota Department of Corrections staffing regulations. Occasionally the jail may have 24 or 25 people staying there for a few days, but Carr has to reduce the number to 23 as soon as possible. The extra inmates are sent to other jails.

Carr negotiates with other jails to get the lowest possible price per day for housing Wadena County inmates. Hubbard and Todd Counties have provided the best price and service recently, so Carr has been using those jails to hold Wadena County inmates. Many people in jail have not been convicted, but have been arrested and are waiting for court dates.

There are complicated reasons for having so many people under arrest, waiting for court dates, and serving sentences.

Carr explained that one reason that so many people are arrested is that "We have good law enforcement here." The county jail holds everyone arrested by the police departments of the City of Wadena, City of Sebeka, City of Menahga, City of Staples (in Wadena County portion of that city) and by deputies of the Wadena County Sheriff's Department. The law enforcement community in Wadena County is skilled at investigating crimes and making arrests.

After the arrested person is arraigned before a judge and bail is set, the person can leave the jail if he or she posts bail and agrees to follow the conditions for release set by the judge. But some people do not have the money to post bail, so they have to stay in the jail until their case goes to court again.

All people confined in the jail are charged fees for their stay. Some can pay the fees and some cannot.

A second reason why the jail is full is because it's winter. Carr said that some people who have a choice about when to serve their sentences, choose to serve them during the winter months. He said there are "roller coaster fluctuations" in the number of people who are confined in jail, if the seasons of the year are compared. He said that drug arrests increase the number of people in jail, and at the end of winter, many people get "cabin fever" and their behavior becomes criminal, for example: drunk and disorderly arrests, assaults, drug sales, domestic assaults, and other types of crimes typically increase.

A third reason why the jail is full right now is due to the role of the courts. Wadena County District Court operates with only one judge. This limits the number of cases that can be heard.

In addition, the Wadena County Attorney's office has been operating with only one attorney, instead of the customary two, due to a resignation. The process of filling that attorney vacancy has moved forward slowly. A new assistant county attorney has been hired, but will not start his service for a few more weeks. In the meantime, County Attorney Kyra Ladd has done her best, but cannot do the work of three people. This contributes to a backlog of cases.

Ladd told us in a personal email communication, "First, case movement is directly tied to the lack of staffing in my office. ... [T]here are other factors that come into play such as BCA evidence processing, judge schedules and rotation, defense attorneys, law enforcement availability for hearings (vacations, scheduled mandatory training), probation agents availability for hearings (again trainings, vacation, conflicts that have agents needed in two different counties for cases), social workers (again, trainings, vacations, etc.), other expert witnesses availability, etc. ..[T]here are many factors outside of my office that [have] an impact on case movement but all of these things have to be managed and coordinated within my office to assure timelines are being met and cases keep moving. Obviously [not having] an assistant county attorney for the past 2 months has played a role in the backlog of cases. I should explain that when I have an assistant county attorney and the one support staff person in my office here is how the caseload works — I do the work for two attorneys and part time administrative assistant work; my assistant county attorney does the work for one attorney and part time administrative work; and my administrative assistant does the work for 1 administrative assistant/paralegal work."

Ladd has asked the county board repeatedly over the last five years to hire a third attorney for her office, but the board has taken no action on her request. She pointed out in her email to us that although Todd County has 11,000 more population than Wadena County, nevertheless "between 2010 and 2013 in the major criminal cases filed (this does not take into account the cases sent to my office for review and follow up and then resulting in no charges but time consuming nonetheless) Todd County was 771 and Wadena County was 710."

"In this same time period major juvenile cases filed for Todd County [were] 652 and Wadena County 518. Not included in these numbers (Court Administration is not able to break it down) are all the misdemeanor cases and gross misdemeanor cases filed and prosecuted from my office." And furthermore, these figures do not include the cases Ladd prosecutes for the cities in Wadena County.

She continued, "For example, Todd County minor criminal case filings for 2010 were 2,150 and Wadena County were 2,060. A portion of these numbers for both counties would be city attorney case filings and not county attorney case filings. Also not included in these numbers are the child support cases, welfare fraud cases, commitment case, emergency guardianship cases, all of which are very time consuming, [with heavy] paperwork and timeline sensitive matters. Also, these numbers do not reflect appeals to the Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court (very labor intensive work) and we have had 6 appeals in the last court term (all successful)."

Ladd concluded, "In sum, these are [just] the items that are court related. My office deals with a ton of other "non-court" related items that require time and resources. For example, my office on average has 60 — 70 cases a month that come into my office for review. All of these cases — both criminal and civil — require work regardless of whether there is formal court action. These cases coming in are not replacing 60 - 70 cases being closed/disposed of because things do not move that quickly in the investigative/judicial world. Typically a criminal prosecutor would have 150 to 200 cases (depending on the severity — the more serious the case, the less cases you can have because of the amount of time required for more serious cases) and that is the only work a prosecutor would be doing and no other cases or administrative work. In this number is not included all of the "other" cases — appeals, non-criminal and other county attorney work that requires time to deal with these other items. Clearly we exceed these numbers and then some ...I do not have enough bodies to accomplish the necessary work that is required of my office and there is not enough time in the day to do it all. The end result is a domino effect that had significant costs to the system because of the bottleneck that occurs due to lack of funding for adequate staff in my office."

Carr added a fourth reason why so many people are in jail right now, and that is because many of them who are guilty are fighting their cases, pleading not guilty and then asking their attorneys to request continuances — delays — in their court dates. As long as they cannot pay or choose not to pay bail, these people remain in jail, either in Wadena County or elsewhere where the Sheriff has to board them in other jails due to lack of space.

The Sheriff plans ahead and includes out-of-county boarding in his budget up to a certain point. But when the budgeted amount is reached, the county board would be asked to increase the Sheriff's budget. The hiring of a second assistant county attorney would likely eliminate the need for out-of-county boarding, and could substantially decrease the case backlog at Wadena County District Court. It would also shorten the length of time that people in jail spend waiting for their turn in court, and speed up the handling of their cases. All county employee hiring decisions are made by the county commissioners, and it is up to them to decide when to increase the attorney staff of the County Attorney's Office and the staff of the Sheriff's Department.