DULUTH – The St. Louis County jail is unusually quiet these days. Visitors and volunteers are no longer stopping by. Neither are many new inmates.
The jail population has dropped nearly in half as law enforcement agencies are told to think twice about who needs to be incarcerated in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
That doesn’t mean crime is down — if anything, crime is the one part of life that seems immune to the coronavirus.
“We have not seen a decline in felonies or misdemeanor cases referred to our office,” said St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin. “We are seeing law enforcement effectively and widely using discretion on whether or not they’re arresting people.”
The jail typically sees an average of 15 new inmates a day, but in recent weeks as few as three bookings are made per day. That has helped prevent a coronavirus outbreak at the jail among staff and inmates, said Sheriff Ross Litman.
“We now have some space to build in a 14-day quarantine period so we’re not mixing people who are new to our facility with those who have been here awhile,” he said.
While jail cells sit empty, Safe Haven’s 39-bed domestic violence shelter is full, as usual.
Advocates have feared the state stay-at-home order would cause a rise in domestic violence. Yet in St. Louis County, 911 calls for domestic violence haven’t increased as some predicted, nor have charges.
Calls for help to the Safe Haven have been rising, however.
“We’ve had a significant spike,” said Brittany Robb, executive director of the Duluth shelter and resource center. “It’s kind of astonishing to me.”
Litman said he’s concerned people are afraid to call 911 or have nowhere to go if they do. Despite fewer arrests, if someone needs to be incarcerated in a domestic-violence situation, they still will be, he said.
“I don’t want the public to assume that has at all impacted our approach to emergencies,” Litman said. “That hasn’t changed our protocols on how to respond to those types of incidents.”
The fact that calls are increasing is a good sign that people can still reach out, Robb said, but it’s disheartening that they need to.
“Anecdotally, we know there are exponentially more people in the community who aren’t able to reach out,” Robb said. “And we have lost a lot of sleep about that.”
University of Minnesota researcher Ruby Nguyen calls the pandemic a “perfect storm” for violence: “The stay-at-home order gives very little flexibility for a victim to leave his or her environment.”
In her 10 years working at Safe Haven, Robb had never seen such a rise in calls before the first few weeks under the state shutdown. Calls jumped 11%, and Robb said that “in many cases it’s a more severe situation than before.”
The shelter may often be the first choice for survivors of violence instead of police.
“I don’t know if folks always look to law enforcement to be the savior, the helper, but we have the relationships with advocates and groups, and we really encourage everybody, if they’re in an abusive relationship, to please call 911,” Sheriff Litman said.
Expanded police presence
Duluth Mayor Emily Larson said that investigators have been reassigned to patrols to “expand the presence of police in the community in a very visible way.”
“Violent crimes and crimes against people and crimes against children remain a very top priority for us,” she added.
The Duluth Police Department hasn’t noticed dramatic spikes in particular crimes so far, though empty businesses have created more opportunities for burglars.
“We have been diligent in doing business checks in our different commercial neighborhoods, so our presence is working as a crime deterrent in those locations,” said police spokeswoman Ingrid Hornibrook.
On Wednesday, 111 people were at the St. Louis County jail — about 40% fewer than pre-COVID times.
Litman said he expects the number of inmates to rise again once the crisis is resolved, despite criminal justice activists pressing to keep pandemic-era reforms to limit the number of people behind bars.
“If you’ve got somebody with a misdemeanor warrant,” they won’t always need to be detained, Litman said. “Obviously there’s always going to be the person who needs to be placed in jail.”
Safe Haven’s 24-hour crisis line is 218-728-6481.
The Minnesota Day One crisis hotline is 866-223-1111 or can be texted at 612-399-9995.