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Fewer inmates means fewer workers for county's community service program

Zach Kizer, of Alexandria, mows lawn Tuesday along the bike trail by Green Lake as part of the sentence to serve. By doing community service work, Kizer is able to reduce his time on probation and provide a service to the county. Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange

Zach Kizer has shingled shelters and poured new concrete floors at Kandiyohi County parks and mowed more than a few miles of grass this fall as part of his time in the sentence to service program.

The work he's done has saved the county thousands of dollars in labor fees and it's shaved months off his year-long probation sentence.

It's a fair trade, said Kizer, a good-natured young man from Alexandria, who's paying the price for a conviction of driving while impaired.

Kizer said it feels good to do work that's appreciated by the community.

Every year the county saves hundreds of thousands of dollars in labor fees by using jail inmates to perform community service in the county's sentence to service program.

But as the county's jail population has shrunk, so has the county's pool of workers. At the same time, the list of public projects that need to be done continues to grow.

"We get a little behind," said Dean Klinghagen, who's served as director of the county's successful sentence to service program for 21 years. "Some of the projects just don't get done."

Usually by this time of year, the sentence to service crews have wrapped up their work at the county parks. But a shortage of workers, and a long list of work, has kept crews busy at the parks well into October.

The numbers fluctuate daily, but Klinghagen said it was common to get 20 to 30 jail inmates every day for community service. When the jail was brimming full of inmates, as many as 50 prisoners a day would show up.

By contrast, one day last week there were just seven jail inmates that reported for the community service work.

"Our numbers are low," Klinghagen said.

The program also uses offenders who do not serve time in jail but are ordered to perform community service as part of their sentence or those who opt to pay off their fines by working it off rather than pay cash.

Those numbers of community service workers are also down.

Changes in the types of sentences handed down by judges, and people paying fines rather than working them off, all contribute to fewer community service workers, said County Administrator Larry Kleindl.

In 2007 there was a total of 75,525 hours of community service work performed by adults.

Using a pay scale of $6 an hour for comparison, those hours translate into $453,150 of labor performed for the county, said Klinghagen.

The program also saved the county $82,810 in jail costs that year because every two days spent doing community service wipes out a day in jail.

But the number of inmates in the Kandiyohi County Jail has steadily declined and so has the number of sentence to service hours.

In 2008, the total adult hours dropped to 70,591.

In 2009 the number fell to 62,403 hours.

In 2010 the number of hours of community service performed by adults dropped to 46,555, and based on quarterly reports, Klinghagen said the hours will be even less in 2011.

"Our work never gets any shorter," said Brett Roelofs, who supervises sentence to service crews that do construction work. "We just have to work harder with fewer people."

Much of the program's work is dedicated to the county's year-round recycling program.

Some jobs are seasonal. In the summer, crews tend to a large garden that produces vegetables that are donated to the Willmar Area Food Shelf. They also set up and clean the county fairgrounds before, during and after the fair, install new sidewalks at county buildings and mow more than 20 acres of grass at the landfill.

They mow county parks, where they also do landscaping, construction and maintenance, like replacing fire rings, painting and shingling shelters and landscaping.

In the winter they shovel snow, wash county vehicles and work at the food shelf.

"We get a lot of work done," said Roelofs, adding that those doing community service work aren't "bad people" but are people who have made mistakes.

Some of the work they do may go unnoticed by the public, but if it wasn't done, the public would certainly notice, said Kleindl.

In the past, crews would also do work for nonprofit agencies or other communities in the county, Kleindl said.

With fewer workers available, that's been curtailed and priority is given to projects on county properties.

"We get requests, but we just never get to them," Klinghagen said.

It's not just the community that benefits from the work.

Roelofs said the program teaches participants good work skills that can be taken with them when their sentence is completed.

Kizer, an experienced construction worker, hasn't minded the work and said it was easier for him to fulfill his sentence by doing community service rather than scraping up money to pay fines in a tough economy.

Doing the work also gave him time to think about his offense.

Declining county jail census

Like many jails in Minnesota, the Kandiyohi County Jail has seen a steady decline in its average monthly census.

Part of the decline is because the county is housing very few state prisoners from the Department of Corrections. That will result in the loss of several hundred thousand dollars in revenue this year, according to County Administrator Larry Kleindl.

But there has also been a decline in county prisoners.

Greg Stehn, jailer at the County Jail, said he doesn't think the decline is because there has been a drop in crime but it may be associated with changes in how crimes are sentenced.

He said other jails in the state are experiencing the same decline in population.

According to statistics, the average monthly census at the Kandiyohi County Jail in 2007 was 170, which included 77 prisoners boarded for either the state or for other counties.

- In 2008 the monthly average was 169, including 72 boarders.

- In 2009 the monthly average was 121, including 46 boarders.

- In 2010 the monthly average was 131, including 55 boarders.

- In 2011 the monthly average, to date, is 84 including 20 boarders.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750