Sentence to Serve, which gives inmates an option to work for community service while paying off fees, is getting a new option.
The Crow Wing County Sheriff’s department is hoping the addition of an ability to work off county fees will increase the number of inmates willing to participate in Sentence to Serve (STS).
Sheriff Todd Dahl said they have taken great pride in the program and wanted to see it expand but state funding cutbacks and fewer inmates reduced the program to a single crew, typically 10 inmates with one team leader. A change in inmate participation came when the courts began sending outstanding fees to collection agencies instead of handling them through the court system, said Administrator Tim Houle.
The county can’t change the state’s approach with fines or fees, but has the ability to offer inmates a chance to work off the county’s fees.
Houle said when the judge dealt with the fees, inmates seemed to take them more seriously and people were willing to work them off but that seems less so now that they are dealt with in the same way as a collection company deals with a credit card debt. Recovery of dollars via collections is a historically low return.
Not all inmates are eligible for the STS crew, which requires a drug screen test. When the jail first opened, Dahl said they had nearly a 200-inmate population and two STS crews, but that has drastically changed. If the numbers could support it, Dahl said they’d love to have three or four STS crews instead of one.
“We worked very hard to keep this program around,” Dahl said. “We hear about what a wonderful program this is from all over. ... I can’t say enough about the program. It’s free labor for the public and the (inmates) should be giving back as far as I’m concerned.”
Commissioner Paul Thiede said the public good through the interaction with the inmates and their work in the community has a societal benefit that goes beyond the debt collection.
Historically, the STS program had a waiting list to get on, but now numbers of inmates and participants may be as low as one individual. Both men and women may take part in STS crews, which pay $6 per hour toward fines before inmates are able to work off jail time. Adding the ability to work off the county fees is one way to increase the number of participants, and while the sheriff’s department doesn’t expect a major impact, it will be one more option.