Officials grapple with housing for convicts

Posted: Tuesday, May 08, 2001

A city plan to incarcerate misdemeanor offenders with the state has Gastineau Human Services worried about the offenders' ability to retain jobs and housing and the agency's ability to staff its community service programs.

GHS has a contract with the city to provide 14 beds a day for people convicted of misdemeanors, a range of minor crimes, at a cost of $306,600 a year with $60 per day for any beds over that amount.

Starting July 1, the city plans to transfer incarceration of misdemeanor offenders to the state. While a contract has not been finalized, the state likely will charge the city $53 a bed for 625 prisoner days a month, City Attorney John Corso said Monday in an interview. State officials have not reached a final decision on where to place city prisoners, but plan to work with GHS on options.

The changes have been part of an effort to reduce city jail costs from almost $1 million annually to less than $500,000, City Manager Dave Palmer said.

GHS, a nonprofit group, daily serves about 11 misdemeanor offenders from the city, Operations Manager Andy Swanston said. GHS has asked the city to take another look at the issue, requesting a one-year moratorium on the transfer.

"I think there are issues that should be talked about," GHS Executive Director Greg Pease said. "This is as important as the bear problem, the noise issue. This is about public safety, our community, families."

GHS has stopped participating in the paper recycling, Junk Busters, municipal fingerprinting and other services because of a lack of prisoners to staff the programs.

But city officials say there may be ways around the changes. The city pays GHS $25,000 a year for a separate work service program and has asked GHS for a community work service proposal, Palmer said. Additional work service hours may be available through the state, he said.

"It's not like there isn't a resource. There are enough (hours) within the community to put this together," he said.

Additionally, Corso said prosecutors could ask local courts to include more community work service hours in sentences.

Pease said state offenders aren't steady or supervised and have months to perform their service hours, making it harder to staff programs. He has suggested the city set up a day reporting center where offenders could be assigned to perform community service instead of paying fines or being incarcerated.

"There are solutions that are on the board, can be worked out and should be worked out," he said.

GHS officials also have objected to putting misdemeanor offenders at the state-run Lemon Creek Correctional Center. Misdemeanants will lose jobs and housing because they won't be able to participate in work-release programs, Pease said.

"It makes a big difference to people," he said. "These are thorny issues, difficult people problems."

But state Department of Corrections officials say the details haven't been worked out, and they plan to negotiate with GHS about taking on the city's prisoners. Department Strategic Plan Coordinator Margot Knuth said misdemeanants won't necessarily go to Lemon Creek. The state currently has beds at GHS, an electronic monitoring program and a home furlough program that might address prisoner needs, she said.

"We might come up with a different type of placement possibility that will closely resemble what the city is doing now," she said.

Where people are placed depends on what the charge is, how serious it is, the defendant's background, treatment needs and how long the person will be in the system, Knuth said.

Pease said GHS is willing to work with the state on changes.

Joanna Markell can be reached at

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