A focus by police and prosecutors on solving serious crimes has crowded the dockets in the Hennepin County courthouse, where judges are coping with what's likely to be a record number of felony cases this year.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman says the trend reflects a shift in priorities away from petty thefts, loitering, minor drug offenses and similar charges.
"All of us in the criminal justice system have spent less time and energy on misdemeanors and more on felonies," Freeman said.
The jump in felony charges parallels an increase in the most serious crime reported in Minneapolis. In the first nine months of 2017, reports of homicide, rape, robbery, burglary, aggravated assault and other serious offenses rose 10 percent compared to the same period last year, according to Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) figures.
"They're definitely connected," Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek said.
Police departments are sending Freeman's office more cases to prosecute, though his charging rate — he prosecutes about 69 percent of them — has remained the same, according to data provided by his office.
As a result, felony charges in Hennepin County are up in all types of crimes, including a 63 percent jump in murder charges, and 15 percent increase in drug charges, according to data provided by the court information office.
At the current pace, the courts will see more than 7,100 felony cases by the end of the year, about 1,000 more than five years ago, according to county officials. By contrast, the courts have seen 60,000 fewer misdemeanor charges this year compared to five years ago, according to county data.
The MPD declined to comment on the rising crime reports in the city.
The pace is stressing the court system, from the prosecutor's office to public defenders to the county jail.
"We've been over capacity going back weeks and weeks," Stanek said. "We're 150 people over where we would normally be."
The jail has often pulled out portable beds for inmates to sleep on the floors. The sheriff's office got a standing order from the chief judge of Hennepin County over Memorial Day and then over the X-Games weekend in mid-July to release anyone with bail set at $500 or less. Twenty-one inmates charged with lower-level crimes such as domestic assault, DWI and harassment were released due to the orders, according to the sheriff's office.
Without the ability to hire more workers, Stanek said he's been forced to pay overtime to staff the jail. Still, he said, some prisoners have missed court appearances because short-staffed deputies could not get them there in time.
Court staff stressed
For now there's only anecdotal evidence that the increase in felony charges has lengthened the time it takes for a case to be resolved, said Judge Toddrick Barnette, the former presiding criminal judge in Hennepin. But an increase of more than 500 cases this year, with an average of four court hearings per case, means 1,200 more court hearings for the year.
"We can't bring in more judges," Barnette said. "With any increase like this, you worry about people's well-being."
As caseloads for the county's public defenders go up, so too have the hours they are working, said Mary Moriarty, Hennepin's chief public defender.
Moriarty said that because of her inability to pay competitive wages, her team is among the youngest group of public defenders in the state. She assigns two of the most experienced public defenders to each murder case, in which clients are looking at years in prison.
"It's causing a huge strain on the staff," she said.