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Wright County News

Posted on: January 6, 2020

County Departments Collaborating for Jail Release Assistance Program

There are several unsung programs operated by Wright County that are often in-house initiatives by employees to help people improve their lives – whether the programs receive much outside recognition or not.

One such program is the Wright County Jail Release Assistance Program, a joint effort of the Sheriff’s Office, Court Services and Health & Human Services. The program is designed to educate inmates in the months and weeks prior to their release to them up to have assistance when they leave the Wright County Jail and attempt to transition back into the community.

The impetus of the program has been to reduce recidivism rates of prisoners returning to the county jail for a different crime. At a time when the statewide average for a return to jail is between 11 and 14 percent in the first year, 24-26 percent in the second year and 34-36 percent three years after release, reconviction has been an ongoing problem that Wright County has attempted to change.

The program was spearheaded by Jail Programs Coordinator Noelle Flesher, Neal Huemoeller of Court Services and Jill Nettestad of Health & Human Services. While their areas of expertise are different, they have points of convergence when it comes to offenders being released from jail.

“It was a collaboration for us in Wright County because they were doing similar types of programs like this in other counties,” Flesher said. “It was something that we wanted to do here. It was big on my agenda when I got hired here to my position and I was glad that we were able to get people here involved and get our own program started here.”

The program touches a lot of bases when it comes to preparing inmates to return to society after their release from the county jail, including assistance with mental health/medical concerns, housing, benefits, employment, a driver’s license/ID card, chemical dependency issues, Public Health, Veterans Services (where applicable) and legal assistance.

Flesher said that a few of the neighboring counties had programs similar to the one Wright County implemented in August 2018 and they served as a template for what Wright County was hoping to achieve.

“Stearns County built the model of how it looked and who all the key players were that needed to be involved,” Flesher said. “A couple of other counties – Benton and Sherburne – started similar programs. When we started housing Sherburne boarders I had at my fingertips their RAP (Release Advance Planning) coordinator and got to see firsthand how she ran their program. It just became a no-brainer trying to figure the pieces that work better in our setting here.”

The success of the program has been measurable. In the first pilot project, which ran from August 2018 to January 2019, 93 inmates participated in the program and only one of the participants was a repeat offender that returned to the jail. When the program was reinstated in March 2019, 88 inmates took part in the program and only four returned to the county jail – a recidivism rate of just 2.7 percent in the first 18 months.

As part of the final county board meeting of 2019, the commissioners approved a half-time social worker position that was the result of the success of the program – Wright County Health & Human Services received a grant of $57,000 from the CommUNITY Adult Mental Health Initiative to provide enhanced release assistance planning services for the county jail in 2020.

For a program that was started simply because employees from different departments saw a need and found a way to make it work is what the Wright County Jail Release Assistance Program was founded on. As it enters its third year, it is a program that those involved can be proud of.

“I think this program is great on many levels,” Commissioner Charlie Borrell said. “We don’t want people coming back to our jail and the numbers show that most of the people that have been in this program have taken something positive away from it. For the inmates themselves, it a chance to try to get a clean start to get back to their normal lives and get a real chance to change their lives for the better. This is one of those programs where it seems like everybody wins.”

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