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DOC facing projected $11 million shortfall

(CORRECTION: The original post stated projections were off 8 percent; that number is the percent increase in court commitments)

REFILED Feb. 28, 2014: The Department of Corrections has no control over who comes through its doors or when; yet its officials are expected to annually anticipate the number of people who will reside behind bars.

The average error rate between fiscal years 2007 and 2013 was 0.62 percent. Because of a larger jump in the male offender population than planned, the department could face an $11 million shortfall unless the governor includes such funding in a supplemental budget..

Commissioner Tom Roy and Grant Duwe, the department’s research director, appeared before the House Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee Thursday to review the process used for estimating the prison population and explaining how the current number is so far amiss. No action was taken.

“This puts us in a real bind,” said Rep. Michael Paymar (DFL-St. Paul), the committee chair.

Duwe said the forecast is updated every November. Those done in even-numbered years help establish the base budget for the upcoming biennium; those done in odd-numbered years are only used for forecasting purposes. In November 2012, projections indicated there would be 9,620 inmates in Fiscal Year 2015, but the projections done three months ago indicate the number had increased to 10,133.

Between fiscal years 2008 and 2012 there was very little growth in the prison population, but due to an 8 percent jump in new court commitments between fiscal years 2012 and 2013, the male offender population grew by 319 offenders in 2013, the largest increase in eight years.

Roy and Duwe said there was no consistent crime pattern across counties that led to the increase. For example, the bulk of new commitments from Ramsey County were for what the department terms “other” offenses, including weapons and order-for-protection violations. In St. Louis County, the largest increase was in person offenses, in Otter Tail County it was property offenses and methamphetamine offenses provided the largest increases in Douglas and Scott counties.

No reasoning is likely to satisfy Paymar, who said he’ll request the legislative auditor look into the issue. “If we don’t have accurate numbers, we can’t accurately budget. I haven’t heard a good answer yet.”

“We have faith in the process, but there’s always room for improvement,” Roy said.

Roy said short- and long-term contingency plans are being developed in case no new state money comes forth this session. “Our short-term strategy is to rent jail beds, rather than get into a big capital expansion plan,” Roy said. “With 2,000 vacant jail beds across the state, we think that is a cost-effective way to deal with a population that we have no control over.” A working group is looking into long-term plans, including the possibility of prison building additions.

The department now rents 317 beds at county jails at a cost of $55 each per day. Those needs are expected to increase to 566 beds by June 1, 2014, and 781 a year later.

Paymar and Rep. John Ward (DFL-Baxter) expressed concern that potential short-term cuts to educational or treatment services would negatively affect prisoners in becoming productive citizens once they are released.

“We don’t want to become a place where we just put people,” Ward said.

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