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Harry's Gang: Time to think about new jail


July 5, 2019

For years, I’ve been asking candidates for sheriff (there’s been only one for more than a decade) and county board how they feel about a new jail. I get to do this because “Harry’s Gang” and the Cloquet Chamber have sponsored candidate forums every election for the past 20 years, and I’ve been fortunate enough to moderate most of them, along with Barry Bergquist. I always included that question, because I thought it was inevitable that a new jail would be necessary in Carlton County.

The candidates themselves rarely had much to say about the issue, which surprised me. The jail is often overcrowded. It’s a fine facility for its purpose, but we’ve been paying rent to other counties for years to house some of our prisoners, and nobody ever liked my solution. (My solution: stop charging so many people with so many crimes.)

But a new jail has been discussed quietly for years; and, finally, the County commissioned a jail study.

The jail study is actually called the “Carlton County Jail and Criminal Justice System Planning Study” and you can view it on the County’s website. I did. It’s fascinating.

Most striking to me about that jail study is that there are also many other recommendations for reform of Carlton County’s criminal justice system.

Sure, a new jail would be nice; and it might even be necessary. But the study points out that other options may help solve the problem. Pretrial release programs, probation improvements, plea-bargain consistency and other suggestions are made, in such tedious detail that I skipped over most of it.

But the point is that we may not need a new jail if we implement some other reforms.

Currently, the jail houses 48 people at a time; the jail study recommends 88 beds. That’s almost twice the current capacity. With only 48 beds, we use deputies to transport prisoners from other facilities; and that is not a good use of a trained peace officer’s time. But is a new jail a good use of taxpayer money?

My son Tommy pointed out to me the other day that between his new middle school, the new city hall (he’s been eagerly watching the remodeling job all summer), the need to use the old city hall for more county offices, and a new transportation building proposed in Barnum (he actually freaked out when he read Dan Reed’s article last week and cried out, “Where is all that money coming from?”), taxpayers are spending a lot of money on new buildings.

I ran into Commissioner Tom Proulx at the courthouse last week. After we chatted tennis for a minute, I asked him about the new jail. He wouldn’t answer. But he did tell me that he got a text from a constituent that said, “You guys are taxing me out of my home, but at least I know I’ll have a bed at the new jail!” I laughed.

There are quite a few questions to answer before we commit to a new jail. Are other options viable? How much will it cost? Can we afford it? Can we afford to not build one?

The state has been looking at the Carlton County jail issue, too, but has fallen short of telling us we need a new jail. Can we alleviate the burden by implementing some other methods? Are we, as I suspect, simply arresting too many people? Would we still be paying to be a part of Arrowhead Regional Corrections, which operates the Northeast Regional Corrections Center, which is, essentially, a jail?

I’ve been asking about a new jail for years, and now I hope we spend plenty of time deciding which route we take.

Pete Radosevich is the publisher of the Pine Knot News community newspaper and an attorney in Esko who hopes to host the talk show Harry’s Gang on CAT-7 again someday. He can be reached at [email protected]


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