For the past year, the Hennepin County jail has been both over its capacity and understaffed, the county board was told during a public safety briefing Thursday.
Serious felony crimes in the county have increased, as have the caseloads for an already overworked public defenders office. More than 7,100 felony cases were charged last year, the most ever in the county.
The commissioners heard some good news as well. Inmates are spending less time in jail while they wait for their cases to be resolved. Misdemeanor and juvenile jail bookings have decreased. And a new initiative to help people with mental illness and chemical dependency issues stay out of jail will start this summer.
All the major players in the county’s criminal justice system were represented at the two-hour briefing, identifying their particular “stressors” on the public safety puzzle. Sheriff Rich Stanek suggested that a judge work at night to move people through jail more quickly, a proposal he said is backed by law enforcement. Another county official said the board should approve a consultant to evaluate the entire criminal justice system, but several commissioners balked at the idea.
Commissioners were concerned that these same crime and jail issues they discussed in August had shown little improvement. They learned that an increase in drug and violent crime cases and child protection referrals is driving larger workloads in all areas of the system. More than 10,000 adult felony cases were submitted to the County Attorney’s Office for possible charges, compared with 8,500 in 2013.
“We seem to have a lot of initiatives, and we are still trying to solve the same problems from a year ago,” said Commissioner Peter McLaughlin.
The average stay in jail for an inmate with a felony charge is 135 days, 25 days less than in 2014. Bookings into jail have dropped 25 percent in the past decade, with last year’s total hitting 32,000.
The jail’s capacity is 755, but the facility averaged 810 inmates last year and has housed as many as 900, Stanek said. The jail is staffed to handle 680 inmates, he said.
“We are burning out the deputies,” he said. “Something has to give.”
Officials suggested several ideas to help alleviate the strain at the jail. County Attorney Mike Freeman said about 50 percent of juveniles charged with less serious crimes get diverted into programs that keep them out of jail.
Catherine Johnson, head of the county’s Department of Community Corrections and Rehabilitation, said she has seen a significant rise in the caseloads of probation officers. Since 2006, the number of cases has nearly doubled to 1,273. She said she would like to add nine more officers over the next three years.
Her staff is also looking for ways to reduce jail time for inmates, including more efficient sentencing investigations. They also regularly check to see if any inmates who have been jailed more than 30 days could be diverted into a program.
Several commissioners said they wouldn’t agree to any sort of jail expansion, saying they would rather spend money on more beds and facilities for people with mental health issues.
“Public safety is a remarkably complex issue,” said Board Chairwoman Jan Callison. “We are now going to focus on the entire system.”