The Carlton County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted Tuesday, Dec. 8, to ask the Minnesota Legislature for permission to conduct a referendum to pay for a new jail facility.

The county board has worked to develop a female offender program since January that could serve as a statewide demonstration project. They hope to use the .05% local option sales tax (LOST) to raise up to $1.8 million annually to pay for the construction of a new jail facility.

The number of incarcerated women has increased “exponentially”, according to the resolution, and county officials 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.

In its October bonding bill, the Minnesota Legislature approved $2 million to pay for preliminary engineering, planning and design of the female offender program.

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Northeast Regional Corrections Center currently serves men, and 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.

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 said 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.

If the Legislature grants the referendum request, voters would be asked to approve the new LOST in the next general election which is scheduled for November 2022. If voters give their consent, collection of the tax would begin in 2023 following a second approval by the Legislature.

The board approved a similar resolution prior to the 2020 legislative session. However, in the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, there was no omnibus tax bill passed, according to Carlton County Coordinator Dennis Genereau. A new resolution is needed prior to the start of the 2021 session.

The sales tax would be in effect 20 years and is expected to raise $36 million to meet the costs of the new facility, according to the resolution.

In January, the Minnesota Department of Corrections issued a report that found major problems with the current jail and said the facility is not compliant with current state standards despite the county’s efforts to make changes.

In addition to not having enough room for the current inmate population, the DOC report 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.

In February, the DOC notified the county it set a sunset date of July 31, 2023 for the jail. After that date the county cannot house inmates in the building as it currently operates.