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Homeless convicted felons a growing issue in county

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Worthington, 56187
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Worthington Minnesota 300 11th Street / P.O. Box 639 56187

CLOQUET - Carlton County currently has little to no "safety net" to deal with convicted felons released within its borders. As well, according to Dave Gilberg of Arrowhead Regional Corrections (ARC), what resources do exist are quickly beginning to dry up.

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Gilberg appealed to county department heads and commissioners at Tuesday's Committee of the Whole meeting to consider a residence or some other type of housing assistance for released felons who might otherwise go homeless.

Gilberg said to date, the numbers of homeless offenders are still relatively small but added that, for the most part, they tend to be some of the most serious offenders.

He said in 2009, he dealt with 24 offenders released in Carlton County, four of whom were homeless.

"One of those who was living in a tent disappeared and has been a fugitive for 18 months," he said.

So far in 2010, Gilberg said he has processed 22 released felons, two of whom are homeless but living in temporary residences. He said he is currently working with another eight still in the works, two of whom will likely be homeless at the point of release.

"Most of the issues stem from offenders who have been convicted here in Carlton County who have no ties to this area," explained Gilberg. "They happened to commit a crime in this county and were convicted and sentenced here, but they have no residence, no employment and no family members here."

Gilberg stated that felons are automatically released in the county where they were committed if they cannot obtain approval to live in another area. About 120 days prior to a felon's scheduled release from prison, Gilberg's office receives a release packet containing information about an offender who has the potential to return to Carlton County. The packet includes details about the person's offense, their adjustment to the institution in which they were housed, any type of treatment or education they received and the parole/probation agent to whom they will be assigned.

That agent must then approve a placement plan for the offender about to be released, including where he or she wants to reside if a residence is approved, areas where the offender may have existing family or employment, and possibly a directive to return that offender to the county where he or she was originally committed if the other options fail to pan out.

"That's when I have to deal with it," Gilberg stated.

He indicated that at the time of release, most offenders have no resources whatsoever and they are released with "gate money" of $100.

"That may take them one or two nights in a motel, but then where?" Gilberg posed.

He said up until now, Carlton County has been able to place at least some of its homeless offenders at places such as the Bethel Work Release facility in Duluth through funding provided by the Department of Corrections (DOC) that provides support for 60 days. He added, however, that option has now been restricted to "intensive supervised release" and sex offenders, closing off that avenue to others.

In addition, Gilberg said the county has had some success in placing offenders in the DOC-funded Attic House in Duluth. However, Duluth has a new ordinance regarding Level Three sex offenders that precludes placement at the Bethel facility, which has tended to keep the four-unit Attic House filled to capacity much of the time.

Gilberg said the Fond du Lac Reservation has likewise begun to tighten its criteria for housing assistance to tribal members who are convicted felons, and he said several have been turned down in recent months.

"Our resources are closing down more and more," said Gilberg. "It's a situation where one of these days, we won't know what to do with these homeless offenders. It would be better if, as a county, we come up with some sort of emergency plan so we can keep track of these folks."

Gilberg pointed to surrounding counties, saying St. Louis relies on the Central Hillside United Ministries (CHUM) center, where the released felon must sign up for a bed by 1 p.m. each afternoon and report to his or her parole agent every day. Aitkin and Itasca counties have a similar shelter, and Pine and Kennebec counties rely on a social service agency known as "Lakes and Pines," which assists homeless felons with emergency shelter and works with them to secure residences through rent assistance. Gilberg said Lake County and surrounding areas of the North Shore currently have no back-up plan available.

Committee of the Whole Chair Gordon Aanerud asked who should take the lead in coming up with a possible solution to help deal with homeless offenders, and Gilberg stated it should likely be the probation/parole departments, since they are the ones who deal with those offenders.

Commissioner Ted Pihlman suggested that Lakes and Pines be consulted, since it has an existing relationship with the county, and Commissioner Tom Proulx suggested a possible housing option on the grounds of the Northeast Regional Correctional Facility.

Aanerud directed Gilberg to work with Commissioner Dick Brenner, who serves on the DOC Committee, to assemble a group to explore various options to deal with the issue and come back to the board at a future date to make recommendations.

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