The Downtown 100 program has reduced crime among chronic offenders by providing guidance.
Dominick Bouza remembers what the streets were like outside Harbor Light Center 10 years ago, when people staying in the Salvation Army facility for the homeless in downtown Minneapolis ran a daily gantlet of drug sales, fights and intimidation.
He could bluff some of them away for a day by telling them they'd been caught on camera and that he'd call the cops unless they disappeared.
But now Bouza and others are part of a longer-term approach to try to reduce troublesome street behavior downtown.
The Downtown 100 program, which actually targets 50 people at a time selected for their history as chronic offenders, is close to winding up its first year and is claiming success.
Crime committed by the first 50 offenders targeted dropped in the 120-block downtown core by 74 percent between 2009 and 2010, according to the city. The effort has drawn the support of people such as Bouza and those at agencies such as St. Stephen's Human Services. The organizations and agencies work with cops, prosecutors, probation officers and others to define a path to a better, more crime-free future for the chronic offenders.
The idea originated with Lois Conroy, who works the downtown precinct as a community prosecutor for the city. She said that after seven years on the job, she realized, "We cannot arrest our way out of this problem. We cannot prosecute our way out of this problem."
She began advocating a different approach. Even before funding was lined up, a team began working with community representatives to monitor the behavior of chronic offenders and envision a better outcome for each.
The Downtown 100 program was formally launched last April after the nonprofit Downtown Improvement District provided $150,000 to finance an added city prosecutor and a Hennepin County probation officer. Although that was only enough money to focus on 50 offenders, the city kept the original Downtown 100 name.
Housing and help
For prosecutors such as Conroy and Nnamdi Okoronkwo, the extra help meant that they could stick with each of their 50 offenders all the way through the court process.
Plus, they entered courtrooms armed with recommendations reached through consensus by those who discuss cases at a weekly meeting. They decide what services might be offered to reduce an offender's chances of appearing in court again.
That may mean working with St. Stephen's to find housing or the Salvation Army to supply drug or alcohol treatment. A sentence might be buttressed with an order to stay out of a defined zone in the western part of downtown, assuming the offender doesn't live or work there. Conroy said people in chemical dependency programs often are more successful if they avoid that zone.
Another key part of the program is having probation officers track frequent offenders, something unusual for lower-level offenses. If an offender misses a probation appointment or refuses required treatment, that officer can seek a court order to detain them. Police can also write a contempt citation that allows the offender to be booked for violating a court-ordered geographic restriction.
A side benefit from the experience is better communication among people who typically interact with the offenders, according to Monica Nilsson, who directs street outreach for St. Stephen's. She said cops have called St. Stephens to say something on the order of: "Joe is down on Nicollet Mall, and he's really in a bad way, and can we drive him over?"
Besides committing fewer offenses, many in the program are gaining some traction in their lives. The proportion of the 50 who had housing rose from 20 percent to 50 percent during 2010. Thirty-six percent got help with drug or alcohol dependency, while 32 percent got mental health services.
Officials also found that the 50 offenders didn't simply take all their criminal activity outside downtown. For the four outlying precincts in the city, the number of crimes committed by the 50 also dropped by 27 percent between 2009 and 2010.
By the end of 2010, 37 of the original 50 were judged stable enough that officials moved them out of the group that gets more intense scrutiny. An equal number thought to need more scrutiny replaced them.
Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438