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Budget cuts mean more inmates will remain behind bars across the region

MONTEVIDEO -- Budget-driven decisions will keep more inmates behind bars in Lac qui Parle and Swift counties as the heat of summer arrives.

Decisions to stop funding their participation in the sentence-to-serve program as of July 1 means a number of inmates in the two counties will no longer be leaving their cells for work sites.

The sentence-to-serve program was launched in the 1980s in large part to help ease crowding and tensions in county jails, according to Midge Christianson, director of 6W Community Corrections.

Inmates who participate in the program spend many daytime hours at work sites, and typically return to their cells with most of their energy spent.

Lac qui Parle, Chippewa and Yellow Medicine counties contract with 6W Community Corrections to oversee sentence-to-serve programs for inmates in their custody. Swift County also obtains services from 6W Community Corrections, but contracts directly with the Minnesota Department of Corrections for sentence-to-serve.

All four of the counties faced the same budget issue in recent weeks. The state reduced its share of funding for the program from 50 percent to 25 percent of the costs.

Chippewa and Yellow Medicine counties opted to pick up the difference. They will also absorb an increased cost due to the withdrawal of Lac qui Parle County from the three-county program. Chippewa County will see its cost for sentence-to-serve rise by $9,676 for the remaining six months of the year. Yellow Medicine County will see its costs rise by $10,893.

Christianson said commissioners from Swift and Lac qui Parle counties serving on the 6W Corrections board made known that the decision to leave the program was due entirely to budget concerns. They fear that the writing is on the wall: With the state facing the prospect of an even larger budget deficit next year, they expect state support for the program to be eliminated altogether.

Some counties, Kandiyohi among them, already pay 100 percent of the costs for operating sentence-to-serve programs.

Its benefits go well beyond easing crowding and tensions in jails, according to Christianson.

The 6W crew has been involved with work ranging from helping plant trees for the Lac qui Parle County Soil and Water Conservation District to clearing invasive cedars from prairie lands at the Upper Sioux Agency State Park.

The program administered by 6W Corrections has been led by supervisors with experience in the construction trades. Its current supervisor, Mike Martin, leads work crews on projects that have ranged from remodeling a portion of the Chippewa County Courthouse to building wheelchair ramps at senior meal sites.

Christianson said she is not aware of any research showing whether the sentence-to-serve program reduces recidivism rates. However, she said there is lots of anecdotal evidence showing its benefits to inmates. Her corrections agents have heard from a number of participants who were able to find employment after their release from jail due to the work experience.

Workers in the program also earn credit of $6 an hour for their labor. It must be applied first toward any fines they may owe. Being able to pay a fine can be daunting for many unemployed inmates in today's economy, she noted. Being able to pay off their fines can help inmates get a better start on a productive life once they leave jail.

In 2009, the 6W program in Chippewa, Lac qui Parle and Yellow Medicine counties logged 7,470 hours of labor and included 48 different inmate workers.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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