During the 2003 legislative session, the state decided to shift some of state prison responsibilities to county jails in order to help balance the budget. That meant county jails have to house short-term offenders--felons who have six months or less remaining on their sentences.
Paul Wilson is an Olmsted County Commissioner and president of the Association of Minnesota Counties. At a news conference with other county officials Thursday, he said counties have seen a dramatic increase in both the number of short term offenders they're holding and the time the offenders are spending in local jails.
"While the number of inmates and days in county jails have substantially increased, the state's reimbursement for housing its felons has fallen from $13.04 per day in 2004 to an estimated to $9 per day projected in 2009," he said.
Wilson said housing costs range anywhere from $55 to $75 a day, and sometimes more than $100 a day.
He said Minnesotans should be concerned because counties have to rely on property taxpayers to pay the bills, and the extra cost of housing short term offenders is squeezing county budgets.
Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner said his jails have very little room for inmates.
"For the last six years at least, Stearns County has been absolutely full every single day," he said. "We've had to house out 15-20 inmates and pay other counties to take those inmates. Now on top of that, sprinkle in short term offender population we need to farm out or pay to house."
This fiscal year, Sanner said Stearns County spent more than $200,000 in expenses for 79 short term offenders.
"And I haven't mentioned medical expenses," he said, "and believe me, they come with significant medical expenses."
Counties have had to send inmates to other counties, and sometimes neighboring states, when they run out of room. And they still have to pick up the tab even if other counties house their inmates.
County commissioners and sheriffs want the state to do more. They say they are willing to continue housing some inmates, but they want the state to give counties more control and flexibility on how to run and fund the system.
Commissioners and sheriffs are hoping the governor and lawmakers will step in to help during the next legislative session.
DFLer Linda Higgins of Minneapolis chairs the public safety budget division in the state Senate. She said many lawmakers wanted to increase funding for housing short term offenders, but the state had a shortfall last year. She said in the next legislative session, her committee will consider it again.
"However, the financial forecast, people are telling us that we are going to be maybe as much as $2 billion in shortfall for the next biennium, so we will have to see how this will all work out," she said. "We don't know at this point here in September what amount of money we'll have to work with."
A spokesman for Gov. Pawlenty says the counties appear to be first in line for money that isn't likely to materialize, in light of a projected deficit and a struggling economy.