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This jail program works

For all those involved, it seems to be a win-win situation. The Sentencing to Service program through the Becker County Jail helps the inmates, the county and the community.

“The whole program is a positive,” said Jail Administrator and STS coordinator Randy Hodgson.

Inmates participating in the program work off their fines, community non-profits and governmental agencies get work done they otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford, and workers may even learn a trade that will help them get a job when they are finished with their sentence.

Each inmate that is eligible to be a part of the STS program goes through a screening process. Their criminal history and the crime they are in jail for at the time are both considered.

The program is only open to non-violent offenders like someone who is in jail for writing bad checks or a DUI offense.

“It’s people in the community that made a mistake,” Hodgson said, adding that they are real low risk.

Projects in the community

The STS crews can be seen doing a variety of jobs throughout the county.

“Pretty much anything requested by non-profits, city agencies, townships, the DNR, county,” Hodgson said.

The crews are responsible for all the public accesses in the county. They mow the grass and pick up garbage. They also remove brush for townships along the roads, paint town halls, build wheelchair ramps to make halls accessible for voters, set up and tear down for the Relay for Life and for the Becker County Fair.

Hodgson said he also had an inmate that was great at painting and painted the entire sheriff’s department from end to end. Another is interested in food service so he helps out in the kitchen.

“It also helps them get back into the workforce and learn a new trade,” he said, adding that they can add their work to resumes after they are out of jail.

He said there is also a visible sense of gratification when a major project is finished. He was a crew leader when STS workers helped install the riprap along the shoreline at Sunnyside Nursing Home. He said it was a big project in the hot summer sun.

When it was finished though, “you could tell they had a real sense of accomplishment,” he said.

Another major project was work at the Frazee Lions Park on the bluff that was edging its way into the river.

Hodgson said not only is it good for the inmates, it’s also good for the community, because these are projects that would cost a substantial amount of money to either non-profits that can’t afford it or taxpayers who would be paying for the governmental agencies to hire the work done.

One location the STS workers know well is the county transfer station. Environmental Services Administrator Steve Skoog said the workers participate in a variety of jobs there, but mainly work with recycling, sorting and baling material.

STS crew members also work at the household hazardous material site, taking care of the paint and electronics waste.

“It’s definitely a low cost labor source,” he said, but it’s also better for the inmate than just sitting in a jail cell all day, he added.

Skoog said that it helps the county out too, because there is a high volume of products to sort and bale at the site, but it doesn’t yield that much income to have to pay high wages for workers. With the STS program though, it’s more cost-efficient.

“Labor supply is a tool to expand what we handle,” he said. “We need the facility, but also the labor side of it.”

Skoog said that when he applied for state funding of the new transfer station that was approved last month, he included the STS workers in the presentation because they are a big part of the process at the transfer station. He also proposed a storage site for the STS program to house their equipment like mowers and snowblowers.

“If we can utilize those (people) in that situation and give them meaningful work, why not,” Skoog said.

County vs. state inmates

There are two parts to the STS program — county and state. While the inmates do the same jobs, they are paid for in different ways.

Those who are through the county program are given the opportunity to pay off their fines and court fees through STS. Hours are tracked and inmates work for $8 an hour that goes toward their fines. Once those fines are paid off, though, inmates do not get paid a wage.

“It’s a positive for the inmates because they can pay off their time and start clean when they get out of jail,” he said.

The state also reimburses the county up to 25 percent of costs for the county’s STS program.

The state STS crew members are those just out of state prison who the county is housing at the minimum security jail. They have a small portion of time left on their sentence — 24 months or less — and choose to take part in the work program instead of sitting in prison longer.

Hodgson said that isn’t to be confused with Becker County’s need to house inmates at Hubbard County.

The need to transfer inmates to Hubbard County is for maximum and medium security inmates. Those housed in Becker County from the state are minimum security.

“Completely different classification, completely different inmates,” he said.

The state STS crew members get paid $1 to $1.50 an hour.

Any costs for the state STS crew comes from the state and not the county.

The county is sitting at about seven STS workers now, but Hodgson hopes to increase that number soon to at least eight.

While both the state and the county STS workers are in custody, there is also a community serve program run through the jail for people who are on probation, or required to do community serve as part of their sentence. They can come from home, work their hours off with the county, and then go home again at night.

So whether the crews are mowing, painting, building, cooking or setting up for the fair, those utilizing the program say it’s a positive.  

“It’s good for them and for the community as a whole,” Skoog said.