By Starrla Cray
McLEOD COUNTY, MN Twenty-five years ago, the idea of allowing non-violent offenders to work on projects to help the community instead of sitting in jail was a new concept in McLeod County.
“There was no Sentence to Service (STS) before I started,” said Duane Radtke, who officially retires as leader of McLeod County’s STS program today.
“At first, it was difficult to get jobs; now, people are begging me,” Radtke said. “This program can save the county a lot of money if they use it right.”
Gutting buildings, painting walls, trimming brush, cleaning parks, splitting wood . . . pretty much anything is fair game for the STS crews. They clean up after Winstock, paint the pool in Lester Prairie, and have made improvements to virtually every county-owned building through the decades.
“The Luce Line [State Trail] was a major project for about five years,” Radtke added.
On a typical day, Radtke has a crew of eight to 12 people. Some are released from jail, while others drive from home. If offenders fail to show up, it can push the project behind schedule.
“I schedule projects two to three months ahead of time,” Radtke explained.
Many inmates are glad for the opportunity to work, though especially because for each day of STS, they get out of jail a day early.
When Radtke first started, inmates got no credit for STS.
“To me, 95 percent of people in jail don’t need to be in jail,” Radtke said, noting that those people aren’t generally a danger to society, but are there simply for punishment.
Offenders Radtke works with have a range of convictions, from first-time driving under the influence (DUI) charges to terroristic threats. Some crew members have been hard workers, and Radtke recommended them to other employers after their service was complete.
“The oldest person I’ve had was 78, and he was a better worker than a lot of the younger ones,” Radtke said.
Radtke has even had people who collect disability checks from the government on his crew.
“I get about 15 people a year on total disability, but they can come out here and work hard labor,” he said.
The job is not easy, and crews work year-round in all kinds of weather.
“In the 25 years I’ve worked, I’ve only taken one day off for weather, and that was for the Halloween blizzard,” Radtke said, speaking of the notorious Oct. 31 snowfall in 1991.
Before becoming McLeod County’s STS leader, Radtke had worked at the McLeod County Jail for seven years.
“I actually have a degree in mass communications/public relations,” he said.
Radtke, an alumnus of Lester Prairie High School, earned his degree from St. Cloud State University.
“This job is a lot of public relations, too,” he said. “I deal with a lot of people cities, counties, sportsmen’s clubs.”
Radtke heard about the STS opportunity while working at the jail.
“A probation officer said there was a new job, and asked if I knew anyone who would be interested,” he recalled. “I said, ‘I’m interested.’”
At that time, STS leaders had to take a test in order to get hired. Radtke was told not to worry; as long as he placed in the top 20, the job would be his.
“When I got to St. Paul to take the test, they called for STS crew leaders, and about 400 people got up,” Radtke said, adding that the test was also offered in other locations in the state.
“Luckily, I ended up in the top 20,” he added.
The test mainly consisted of mathematical word problems, reading comprehension (such as understanding state statutes), and tool use/identification.
For Radtke, the best part of his career has been the variety of projects, and getting to work with other people.
“I still enjoy the job. I would probably keep doing it, but it’s time for someone else,” said Radtke, who is nearing his 63rd birthday. “It’s getting tough. It’s a very physical job.”
Although Radtke is technically retiring, he’ll still have plenty of work to do.
“I have my own business, too,” he said. “I do septic system designs and inspections.”
In the winters, he plans to take time off to fish, hunt, and travel activities he hasn’t had much time to do because of his busy work schedule.
“I’m a workaholic,” he admitted. “I’m trying to slowly cut back, and learn how to recreate.”
Another of Radtke’s goals is to write a book about his STS experiences.
“All my stories will be in there,” he said.