Hennepin County seeks to reduce jail numbers

Hennepin County jail in downtown Minneapolis is seen on Dec. 23, 2005.
Hennepin County jail in downtown Minneapolis is seen in December 2005. The county's jail oversight committee recommendations include alternatives to locking up people for failing to meet with probation officers.
Micah | Wikimedia Commons

Hennepin County officials are discussing reforms designed to reduce the county's jail population by decreasing the number of people who don't need to be there in the first place, or who don't need to stay there for long.

Members of the Hennepin County Board listened to a presentation on Thursday from the county's jail oversight committee. According to data from the committee, the percentage of people booked into the jail for suspected misdemeanor offenses has dropped from nearly 42 percent in 2015 to 29 percent in 2018. Yet the percentage of people in jail for felony bookings is on the rise. And last May, the number of jail bookings reached 836 — more than the jail's capacity of 755.

Assistant county administrator Mark Thompson said jail stays disrupt people's family lives, housing and employment. He said the key is to make sure confinement is reserved for the most appropriate cases.

"I think it's really important that we keep dangerous — to themselves or others — people in the appropriate facility, whether it's mental health or a jail," said Thompson. "We would all probably agree on that."

Most people detained at the county's adult jail in downtown Minneapolis are there on probable cause bookings, meaning they may or may not be formally charged with a crime. However, a spokesperson for the county attorney's office said most do end up being charged. County officials say a much smaller number of people— about 30 per day — are people suspected of violating the terms of their supervised release from prison. He said these are called "DOC (Department of Corrections) holds."

Thompson said it takes 11 days for a state corrections official to come to the jail and determine if that person did violate the terms of his or her release and should go back to prison, or should be let out of jail.

"Amazingly, it's 11 days on every one," said Thompson. "And it's 30 people a day and it's a $144 a day, so that's about $1.35 million a year."

The committee offered several recommendations for how to reduce this part of the jail population. Community Corrections and Rehabilitation department director Catherine Johnson said the state is not open to allowing lower risk offenders to be released to electronic home monitoring. However, she said they are willing to explore staffing adjustments that will speed up the hearing process.

Another option, said Johnson, is to house some of the population at the county's Adult Correctional Facility in Plymouth. But she said there are "capacity issues," especially with the women's section of the facility. And Johnson said if the county wants to pursue that option, there will need to be discussions "about what that might look like if we want to create the space and facilities necessary to accommodate this population at the [Adult Correctional Facility]."

"I'm just hoping that doesn't mean expansion," said Commissioner Angela Conley. "Can you say more about that?"

Johnson said the Adult Correctional Facility is an old building in need of updates unrelated to the possible incorporation of these extra inmates. However, she couldn't assure the commissioner that expansion is off the table.

The committee also presented recommendations on how to reduce the number of people jailed for technical probation violations, like failing to meet with probation staff. According to the committee, about 750 people booked into the jail each year could be released early after making initial contact with their probation officers.

"It's not as though those people are violating any laws, doing anything that's a danger to the community," said Hennepin County chief public defender Mary Moriarty. "Probation just wants to get in touch and they can't get in touch with them so they issue a warrant."

Commissioners and county staff were careful to point out that while some of their previous initiatives are reducing the jail population, low-income and people of color are still overrepresented in the jail population.

Moriarty said while the system needs serious reform, she's encouraged by the efforts made in Hennepin County.

"This is actually a sea change in how, what people call the criminal justice partners, operate," said Moriarty, referring to the cooperation between city, county and state officials who've been working together. "I've been a public defender for 30 years and the chief for five. This is a sea change from the way people in the system have operated."

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