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Swift County looks at new plan in effort to operate sentence-to-service program on its own

BENSON -- After taking action last month to bow out of the state's revised sentence-to-service contract that would have increased local costs, the Swift County is looking for ways to operate the program on its own.

At its meeting Tuesday night, the County Board of Commissioners appointed two board members to work with Sheriff John Holtz to create a workable plan that could be implemented by July 1, when the county's contract with the state ends.

The transition may have a few bumps, but Auditor Byron Giese said it's an "excellent opportunity" for the county to save money yet retain most of the services it had with the state corrections program.

In comments made after the meeting, Giese said the county will save $46,000 and get most of the jail inmates who qualify for the sentence-to-service program to a public facility where they can work off court fines.

"Is it all about money? No. But it's all about being more wise with our money," said Giese.

This spring counties were informed the 50-50 cost share they had with the state to fund the program would be cut, with counties paying 75 percent starting July 1. The money is used to pay for a state employee to find work projects and supervise work crews. Swift County said no to that offer, saying it would seek other options, including purchasing services from the Region 6W Corrections program in Montevideo, where the county already receives some corrections services.

Midge Christianson, director of 6W Corrections, told the commissioners on Tuesday that her office does not provide sentence-to-service crew supervision of jail inmates. Her program facilitates community service work for juvenile offenders and adults who have fines but are not in jail.

Christianson said her office would be able to do the paperwork involved with a county-operated program of sentence-to-service but reiterated that she could not provide crew supervision.

The average daily census at the Swift County Jail is about seven to eight prisoners and not all of them qualify for the sentence-to-service program.

In a later interview, Giese said that in the first quarter of 2010 about 90 percent of the sentence-to-service hours were logged at the county's recycling center. County employees pick up two to three inmates every day, supervise them on the job and return them to the jail. He said he believes the county can continue to do that without paying a state employee.

During Tuesday's meeting, Holtz said if there isn't enough work or supervision, and only two or three can work at the recycling center, more inmates will be spending more time in jail rather than doing public works projects in the community.

Several commissioners said if inmates are needed to work elsewhere, like in the county parks or highway department, they could be supervised by county employees.

Christianson said, however, that county employees might be good at managing parks or highways but may not be good at supervising jail inmates.

Holtz said he has concerns about the county establishing its own program and needed time to study options to make it workable. The plan has to be in place by the end of the month.

Ending the contract with the state means that Eileen Burgess, who supervised the program for 18 years, is out of a job. Her husband, Tim, questioned the board's actions during a somewhat emotional presentation at the meeting when he asked if the contract with the state could be restored. He was told it could not be.

Carolyn Lange

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

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