See more of the story

A coordinated effort by the Hennepin County criminal justice system has resulted in fewer inmates in the county jail over the last year.

The average daily jail count in May was 653 inmates, down from 836 inmates during the same month in 2018. There was a reduction in nearly every month over that same period.

Officials said that a combination of factors chipped away at the jail population: fewer violators with misdemeanors going to jail, a shared in-custody database for real-time analysis, earlier release of suspects before charging and faster pretrial hearings.

Any jail time creates housing issues and disrupts people’s jobs and lives, county officials said Thursday at a briefing about the jail statistics.

It costs Hennepin County $140 a day to house an inmate, and the county has to pay overtime for staffers whenever the jail goes over its daily capacity of 755.

“This is really good work,” said Commissioner Jan Callison. “We are focusing on Hennepin County data, not state statistics or national trends.”

Study recommendations

Jail overpopulation has been a significant issue for Hennepin County since 2017. Although the county was targeting misdemeanor offenders for reduced or no jail time, felony arrests soared.

More than 300 employees work at the jail, which had a budget of $39.5 million in 2018. The inmate surge in 2017 cost the county $1.5 million in overtime pay.

For every 25 inmates over capacity, the annual cost is $250,000.

The County Board commissioned a study in 2018 to examine the jail’s population over 18 months and recommend ways to reduce it.

The project was directed by retired Hennepin County district judges John Stanoch and Lucy Wieland.

A key recommendation was the creation of an oversight committee with decisionmaking power, made up of city and county administrators, information technology specialists, law enforcement and corrections officers, prosecutors and public defenders.

The next step involved a data-sharing agreement between corrections officials and the Sheriff’s Office to identify issues with the help of a data scientist. The hope is to include the county and city attorney’s offices and the Hennepin judicial district in the database.

Setting up a similar database was proposed when Hennepin County built the jail in 1998, but it fizzled because of lack of funding and attention, said Stanoch, who was assistant chief judge at the time.

Another recommendation from the study is a new court order for people held on probable cause for a crime. If the 36-hour charging window for them expires on a Saturday, they now will be released by 6 p.m. Friday. Since the order was issued in March, 91 “bed nights” were saved, said Judge Kerry Meyer.

The court is working with prosecutors to expedite charging decisions and train law enforcement officials to find alternatives to jail for offenders and will analyze weekend jail populations for trends, she said.

The county plans to start a meet-and-release pilot program for first-time probation violators who don’t contact their probation officers or who fail to appear in court. It’s an effort to have offenders immediately resolve the issue, which could shorten the stay of about 750 people each year.

Racial disparity is concern

Less progress was made in other inmate-reduction measures.

Hennepin County detains about 30 people for the state Department of Corrections (DOC) pending a hearing on violations of their supervised release. County officials wanted to release them on electronic home monitoring until the hearing but the DOC didn’t agree, said Catherine Johnson, the county’s Community Corrections and Rehabilitation Department director.

County officials also are considering housing people with holds at the workhouse or hiring another hearing officer.

Commissioners Angela Conley and Irene Fernando and the county’s chief public defender, Mary Moriarty, were concerned that Thursday’s briefing didn’t address racial disparities within the jail population.

The percentage of black inmates was reduced from 70% to 60% in the last five years, said Mark Thompson, assistant county administrator for public safety. All the partners in the criminal justice system are looking at ways to tackle the issue, he said, and the Sheriff’s Office is supplying race data on inmates for the first time.

Jana Kooren, community engagement director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, said she had a problem with the oversight committee’s report that the tool used by judges to determine if a person arrested will commit a crime or fail to appear in court before trial was race- and gender-neutral.

“I’m glad to see they are having some success in lowering jail populations,” she said. “But just by lowering the population doesn’t mean you are intentionally targeting racial disparity. More attention also needs to be paid to felony offenders.”

David Chanen • 612-673-4465