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Cass County Sheriff defends jail's record despite 'human mistakes'

FARGO -- For one jail inmate named Todd, it must have seemed like his lucky day. Meanwhile, the other Todd was left to wonder why he was still behind bars.

FARGO -- For one jail inmate named Todd, it must have seemed like his lucky day. Meanwhile, the other Todd was left to wonder why he was still behind bars.

It was March 3, 2008, and the Cass County Jail inadvertently released the wrong Todd from custody. The booking officer, who failed to verify the proper inmate by his picture in the booking file, received a written reprimand, as did the correctional officer who sent the wrong Todd to booking.

The mistake was one of two instances since 2008 in which the jail let the wrong inmate go, according to a review by Forum News Service of personnel complaints obtained from the Cass County Sheriff's Office through an open records request.

In addition, records revealed 11 instances in which adult inmates were improperly released, most recently on March 27, whena man was set free four days before his sentence was complete. A jail sergeant received a written reprimand for failing to thoroughly review the discharge paperwork.

'A constant battle'


Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney said it's "a constant battle" to maintain minimum staffing levels at the jail, and that "anytime that you put your people under a lot of pressure, where you have human beings you're going to have human mistakes."

But Laney said he believes he has "the most professional correctional staff that a sheriff could ask for," and they are held accountable. Written reprimands were issued in nine of the 11 improper inmate releases, while the other two instances were blamed on paperwork issues anda policy failure.

"We don't let anything go by, and small mistakes are accounted for," Laney said. "And in a situation like this where you're in a super busy environment, you've got a number of people coming through, mistakes can happen. And we always call on the carpet our mistakes and help our deputies learn."

In the other case of the wrong inmate being released, the complaint was sustained but no disciplinary action was taken because the inmate's photo was associated with the wrong name, and there was confusion over incorrect paperwork in the files.

Attention to detail

When put into perspective with the volume of inmates the jail handles -- more than 43,000 bookings since Jan. 1, 2008, and more than 7,800 releases last year alone -- Laney said it "shows pretty good attention to detail."

"Would we like to see a perfect record, batting a thousand every time? Yes," the sheriff said.

It's unclear how the Cass County Jail stacks up against other county jails in the state when it comes to improper inmate releases because such numbers aren't tracked.


The North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation inspects county jails but has no regulatory oversight over the release of inmates from the jails, said Steven Engen, the department's director of staff development and facility inspections.

Engen said Laney and his staff "are very forthright in what they report to us, and if there was an issue, I'm very confident they would self-report it... They runa good facility, good administration."

The DOCR inspects facilities for 116 conditions, including physical structure, food service, fire protection, sanitation and hygiene, safety and emergency procedures, security and health care, Engen said. Since the current Cass County Jail opened in 2002, "they've been in full compliance every year," he said.

No recent complaints

A review of the Clay County Sheriff's Office's personnel complaints found no disciplinary actions taken for improper releases of inmates since 2008, and Clay County Jail Administrator Julie Savat said she couldn't recall any such instances in recent years.

But Savat said she understands how it can happen, as jail staff constantly shuffle paperwork and inmates.

Savat also noted that the Moorhead jail sees far fewer inmates than the Cass County Jail, averaging about 240 bookings per month, compared with more than 650 bookings per month at the jail in Fargo.

"We're not the same. They deal with a lot more people than we do," she said.


Jail administration at the county jails in Grand Forks and Bismarck said they couldn't recall ever releasing the wrong inmate or any recent instances of inmates being released early or without posting the proper bond.

"It can get confusing," said Capt. Lisa Wicks, assistant jail administrator at the Burleigh County Detention Center in Bismarck. "To keep that sorted, it takes constant sorting and supervision."

"I'm not saying that it's never happened," said Bret Burkholder, administrator of the Grand Forks County Correctional Center. "I can't recall it happening."

Laney again stressed that the sheriff's office has "very high accountability" and allows only the "best of the best" to weara Cass County badge. "Every now and then we have an employee that can't meet that standard," he said.

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