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County jail in marketing mode for its inmate beds

It's a matter of economics.

In a microeconomics class, the instructor would be talking about a return on the fixed costs.

But Washington County Sheriff Steve Potts never thought he'd find himself in the position of "selling" the beds that are in the Washington County Jail.

And to make those beds more competitive in the market, and in the hope of shifting the demand curve for those beds upward, the sheriff asked the Washington County Board of Commissioner reduce the amount charged other jurisdictions for housing their inmates from $81.11 a day to $55 a day for a male inmate and $60 a day for a female inmate. If the jurisdiction has no contract, the rate is $80.

The move was requested simply to keep the Washington County Jail in the running when another jurisdiction is looking for a place to house an inmate.

When jail beds are available, other jurisdictions that need to place an inmate are welcome to rent a bed at the going rate. Beds are rented by other counties, as well as by the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the U.S. Marshal Service.

In the past, beds were most often rented by Ramsey, Hennepin, Dakota, Scott and Chisago counties.

The most money the county received from leasing those jail beds was $2.3 million in 1997.

But those salad days are over. Hennepin and Ramsey counties built new jails and Sherburne County expanded its facility. The result has been something close to an oversupply of jail beds. In 2004, the county's income for jail leasing was just more than $600,000, and the first half of 2005 has brought in less than $60,000.

At the same time, unlike the time when the jail was built in the early 1990s, new options, such as sentence-to-serve programs, created alternatives to jailing offenders in the county jail, again reducing the jail population.

All this prompted Potts to lower the price in the hope that that will increase the demand for the Washington County jail space. "Like everything else, it's all about the money," Potts said.

This is a major change from five to 10 years ago when "there was a huge bed shortage," Potts said. Now, only Dakota County faces major shortages, and continues to rent beds from Washington County. Last week, inmates from Winona and Olmstead counties were in the jail, along with five from Dakota County, one from the INS and one from the U.S. Marshal Service.

When double-bunked, the Washington County Jail could house 226 inmates, although the optimum number is lower, at 190 to 195 inmates, Potts said.

In the face of the changing numbers, "we just re-evaluated what our cost is and we lowered [the rates]," Potts said.

"It's tough to find inmates now. We work hard to solicit inmates from other counties, but what we are doing is taking them way from other county sheriffs," he said.

At the same time, fixed costs at the jail remain the same, whether the staff is looking out for one inmate in a jail block or the 40 inmates that the block is built for. "It's not practical to shut down part of the jail," Potts said. "It makes more sense to find the inmates."

In addition to the growing number of county jail beds, the private sector is also entering the market, opening new prisons in Appleton and Sauk Centre.

One area in which Washington County could find a niche is in serving female inmates, Potts said. Right now, females are segregated in a 20-bed section of the jail. It would be possible to swap that 20-bed block for a 40-bed block, and house more women in the larger jail block.

The female jail population is growing, Potts said, as today women are frequently involved in methamphetamine manufacturing and sales, identity theft and financial scams, causing their jail population to grow.

Short-term offenders

The other change that the county jail is living with is housing the state's short-term offenders.

Since a change in state statutes in 2003, when the state has prisoners who are sentenced for six months or less in prison, they can be sent to county jails for the remainder of their sentence. Potts also provided a report on the short-term offenders at a July board of commissioners meeting. The topic remains a matter of debate between the county and the state, Potts said in a later interview.

"For Fiscal Year 2003-2004 ending June 30, 2004, Washington County received $33,982.24 for 2,610 days of service. This equals a per diem of $13.02 per day," the sheriff wrote in his report.

The state's appropriations for the coming year has not been increased, the report added.

Through 2004 and the first half of 2005, the number of short-term offenders in the jail fluctuated from a low of nine to a high of 16.

Yvonne Klinnert may be reached at 651-439-4366 or