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James MacPherson, Associated Press, Published January 31 2013

Oil-impacted jail wants more money to keep prisoners from leaving early

BISMARCK — A county on the edge of western North Dakota's booming oil patch is freeing some prisoners because of the lack of jail space, officials said Thursday.

“We're seeing people out on the streets who really should be in jail,” Ward County Commissioner Shelly Weppler told the House Appropriations Committee.

Rep. Dan Ruby, R-Minot, is pushing a bill that would allow the county to obtain a $5.2 million grant to help expand the county jail in his city. Ward County has very little oil production but is heavily impacted because many companies and workers are based in Minot, Ruby said.

“Minot is a regional hub with a lot of activity going on and a lot of illegal activity going on,” Ruby told fellow lawmakers. “Ward County is growing, not only in population but also in our jail population.”

Lt. Paul Olthoff, who works at the Ward County Jail, showed lawmakers photographs of the facility, with prisoners sprawled out on mattresses outside of jail cells. The jail's capacity is 104 inmates but often tops 120, he said. The jail's population has doubled in the past decade with the explosion of oil development in the region.

“We are experiencing overcrowding on a daily basis creating a hostile and unsafe environment for those incarcerated and the staff working at the facility,” Olthoff said. “The jail is forced to release some inmates, depending on charges, due to lack of bed space.”

Releasing prisoners early creates liability for the county and more work for the courts, “if these people do not show up for their court date without a bond to assure their appearance,” he said.

Olthoff said releasing prisoners early also is frustrating for law enforcement.

“Some of the arresting officers have commented that the prisoner beats them out the door before they can complete their paperwork,” he said.

Ruby's proposal would provide matching grant money for jail expansion projects to counties with greater than 45,000 people but fewer than 65,000 people, based on the 2010 census. Ward County, which had about 61,600 residents recorded in the last census, is the only county of the state's 53 that would qualify for the money under the measure.

Ward County voters in November approved a one-half percent sales tax for building projects, including a county office building, an expansion of the county jail and a renovation of the county courthouse. Some sales tax money would also be used to pay for repairs to public works that were damaged during Souris River flooding in 2011.

The county wants funding help for its jail from so-called oil impact grants.

The grants are awarded to North Dakota's 17 oil-producing counties based on need, said Gerry Fisher, assistant director of state's Energy Infrastructure and Impact Office. Ward County is slated to receive $200,000 of the $130 million in oil impact grants available this year, he said.

Burleigh County Sheriff Pat Heinert said he supports the additional funds for Ward County “to a point.” But Heinert said the Burleigh County Jail and many others in counties outside of the oil patch also are being impacted by energy development and “are in dire need of facilities for jail space.”

Heinert said many of Burleigh County's prisoners are from out of state or from North Dakota's oil patch region. The sheriff said his jail is full of inmates from western North Dakota who came to the Bismarck area and committed crimes.

“A lot of the impact we're seeing is from their days off,” he said.

Lawmakers took no action of the measure Thursday but said they intended to further investigate the issue.

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