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New approach to juvenile justice saving the county incarceration costs

Probation director says Otter Tail County now favors incentives over lockup.

Mike Schommer.jpg
Michael Schommer

Otter Tail County’s plan to take troubled kids hiking instead of locking them up has resulted in substantial savings, Probation Director Michael Schommer said Tuesday.

The number of Otter Tail County kids placed in the West Central Regional Juvenile Center plummeted from 2018-2019 to 2020-2021 according to charts Schommer showed Otter Tail County commissioners during their Tuesday, Aug. 10 meeting.

Some of that was driven by the pandemic, he said, but the timing also coincided with the county's efforts to steer children away from incarceration, which can traumatize kids. County staff is spending more time working with the most at-risk kids, while devoting less time to kids who screw up once. The outings such as hiking or kayaking are a reward for good behavior.

"It doesn’t cost a lot of money to go hiking," he told commissioners. "It doesn’t cost anything. But the kids really enjoy getting out.”

The county's projected cost for the juvenile center in 2022 is $420,759, compared to $630,095 in 2021, $691,281 in 2020 and $554,001 in 2019. And because the Moorhead center, which serves multiple counties, took in more than it spent, Otter Tail County will receive a credit for $143,000 in 2021 and $238,000 in 2022, bringing its costs down further.

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He said the county is trying to help kids develop their talents. He also said he has gotten good feedback from judges, as it eases the backlog of cases before them. The judges are still aware of what is happening with the children, but they like that they’re not seeing the kids as much for everything.

"We're not only working with the child, but with the families as a whole," he said. "We're just trying to provide a little more support."

Schommer is also the incoming president of the Minnesota Association of County Probation Officers.

The county might be saving money with juvenile justice, but it will have to spend more than it planned on a new GIS mapping project through the Red River Watershed Management Board.

The project, using Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) technology, was supposed to map just under 800 square miles of Otter Tail County, but will instead cover more than 2000 square miles. The technology uses an airplane to send lasers to the ground to record detailed maps of landforms like drained wetlands, old building sites, remnant fence lines and structures normally hidden by vegetation. Commissioners committed to paying somewhere between $98,000 to $118,000 but are now looking at about $270,000.

"The dollar amount is at least twice as much as we anticipated," said County Administrator Nicole Hansen. “I still think this is a good investment.”

She said she felt that the county could find the funds for it, and the county commission approved going forward with the mapping.

In other commission news:

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  • A local real estate agent won the bid for a tax-forfeited house. Roger Engleson submitted the high bid of $80,000 for a house at 25037 County Highway 27 in Fergus Falls. The county values the property at $127,600.
  • Otter Tail County is holding off on the sale of a Midland Beach property on Little Pelican Lake at the request of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which commissioners said is seeking out a public access location on that lake. However, commissioners questioned the value of the property for that purpose, as it is narrow and sits on a curve in the road.
  • The number of COVID cases is rising in Otter Tail County, said Public Health Director Jody Lien, mainly because the contagious Delta variant has taken over. The county now has a positivity rate of more than 6%; the cautionary threshold is 5%. The health department continues to urge vaccination, as vaccination means an eight-fold less chance of falling ill from COVID and a 25-fold less chance of hospitalization and death. “We all hope to be able to put those masks away but it’s good to pull those masks out again to prevent the spread of this virus in our communities," she said.
  • Commissioner Dan Bucholz said he had spoken to a doctor who had seen a huge uptick in COVID cases following the county fairs, and who is also concerned about the return of children to school. “She’s very concerned about the kids,” he said. Lien concurred, adding: "There are a lot of difficult decisions to be made.”
  • The planned Glacial Ridge Trail got a bump forward, as commissioners agreed to spend an additional $6,000 to move it forward after it had been delayed several time because of COVID and other reasons. The Glacial Ridge Trail is the north-south counterpart to the east-west Perham-to-Pelican Rapids trail, and would connect Fergus Falls with Maplewood State Park.

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