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Jail fewer people? Twin Cities law enforcement say they're changing the way they deal with crime

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Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman spoke after a conference.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman speaks after a conference in St. Paul on Thursday held to discuss alternatives to arrests and jail for law enforcement.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

Nearly 100 prosecutors and police met in St. Paul Thursday and came away with an unusual pledge for fighting crime: arrest fewer people.

"Our jails should not be filled with the people we're mad at. Our jails should be filled with the people we are afraid of," said Ronal Serpas, a former New Orleans police chief, Loyola University professor and executive director of the New York-based Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration. 

He was in Minnesota at the invitation of county attorneys and police agencies to talk about how to grapple with the limits of traditional law enforcement.

He urged Minnesota to rethink mandatory minimum sentences, jail beds and COMSTAT, the statistics that law enforcement traditionally has used to assess its work. Instead, Serpas said law enforcement should have a new goal: "Fewer people go to jail. More people get mental health treatment. More people get social service wraparound treatments."

The professor was joined by Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal, as well as Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, Ramsey County Sheriff Jack Serier and St. Paul police Chief Todd Axtell. Nearly 100 members of their staffs were also meeting, to talk about how they could work together on everything from increasing funding for chemical dependency treatment to changing drug laws to keep low-level offenders from taking up police attention and jail space.

"This is not about being soft on crime," said Axtell. "This is being smart on crime. The people in our community that victimize through violence ... will still be going to jail. As a matter of fact, we can focus more on the people victimizing if we're smart on the front end in putting the right people behind bars."

Choi, the Ramsey County attorney, said the gathered prosecutors and police talked about changes they could seek at the state Legislature and changes they could make in their own agencies that would curb arrests. That could include recalibrating drug penalties so that felony-level offenses are less frequent.

Freeman, the Hennepin County attorney, said his office is looking at some felony offenses to divert out of the traditional court system, as well as increasing the use of an 18-bed mental health facility in Minneapolis as an alternative to jail. Freeman said the county plans an even bigger facility with around 100 beds near the county's workhouse.

"We're also working with veteran's court, because there's a lot more we can do to protect our veterans because they are committing crimes because they have PTSD, not necessarily criminal intent," Freeman said.

But city attorney Susan Segal said there was another key factor to focusing law enforcement on the most dangerous cases, and that's avoiding unintended arrests. Minneapolis has already eliminated some crimes altogether, like bans on spitting and loitering. Segal also said Minneapolis police long arrested people who had warrants out for skipping court dates. But she said research showed as many as 70 percent of court notices were being returned in Hennepin County, because people were no longer living at the addresses listed in their case files.

She says when police encounter people that have missed a court date for the first time, they're giving them another court date on the spot, rather than taking them in on a warrant.

"The officers have more time then out to be doing more of what they're supposed to be doing," Segal said. "It avoids an arrest and jail time for the individual which is very disruptive to their life, particularly when it can be somebody who really, literally, did not know they were supposed to be in court."