The Carlton County Board of Commissioners voted Monday, Jan. 27 to develop an offender program for women and seek up to $40 million from local option sales taxes to pay for a new jail.

The measures are the result of a Minnesota Department of Corrections report that recommended the facility be closed if changes aren't made.

The county requested the state Legislature appropriate $3 million for the preliminary engineering, planning and design of a female offender program that could serve as a statewide demonstration project.

The number of incarcerated women has increased locally and nationally, county officials said, and they hope to design an evidence-based program to improve service to female inmates. Minnesota law requires parity between programs for men and women, but there is only one local program providing services to women.

Northeast Regional Corrections Center currently serves men, but there are no services for female prisoners. The only local program that provides services to female offenders is the Duluth Bethel Chemical Dependency Service. Bethel, however, has just 10 beds for women.

“Bethel is a great program,” Carlton County Coordinator Dennis Genereau said. “But it doesn’t offer as many options as NERCC.”

The county also approved a resolution to request that the state authorize a local option sales tax (LOST) referendum to take place in November. The county hopes to use a .05% sales tax to raise $1.8 million annually to finance a new jail. The new facility could cost up to $40 million.

Minnesota law requires the county request permission for a referendum. Furthermore, any project using LOST funds is required to have regional significance and an economic benefit. If voters support the additional sales tax, the Legislature would have to approve the measure during its 2021 session.

In its resolution, the county argued the proposed program for women provides the regional significance the state requires and is supported by the Fond du Lac Tribal Government and other regional entities.

The board also approved a request for proposals for architectural and engineering of a new jail, as well as construction management services. Genereau said including construction management in the RFP will help the county “dial in” the cost estimates for the new facility. Officials aimed high with the initial $40 million request because it is much more difficult to increase the amount than to reduce it, Genereau said.

The board also ordered a study to analyze the costs of sending male inmates to NERCC instead of housing them locally. Besides a cost analysis for men, officials hope they will be able to use the study to estimate costs for similar services in Carlton County for female offenders. The county will pay up to $5,000 for the study.

Report lists where jail falls short

In the report received Monday from the Minnesota Department of Corrections, Sarah Johnson, senior detention facility inspector, wrote that the facility has major problems and is not compliant with current state standards despite the county's efforts to make changes.

“There are very few operational issues with the Carlton County Jail, and the jail has made many operational improvements from past inspections,” Johnson said in the report. “However, based on the physical plant deficiencies in this report and past reports, there will be a recommendation to the Commissioner of Corrections to move forward with a Sunset Authorization for the Carlton County Jail. It is the intent of the Department of Corrections to continue to work with the officials of Carlton County to address the public safety needs of this community.”

In addition to not having enough room for the inmate population, Johnson cited the poor construction of the building; antiquated locks; heating, ventilation and air conditioning problems; a lack of natural light in the facility; and a linear design that requires a higher staff-to-inmate ratio and a lower operational capacity.

A sunset authorization means the state would close the jail if changes aren't made. The county is expected to receive a letter notifying them of the sunset authorization by Feb. 11, said Sheriff Kelly Lake.