The number of adults charged with felony crimes in Dakota County -- from violent assaults to burglaries -- fell by 12 percent last year compared to 2008, according to statistics released Tuesday.

Overall, the number of assaults, terroristic threats and other violent felony cases dropped by 17 percent, from 646 to 539. But felony sex cases, murder and manslaughter charges inched up.

The numbers refer strictly to adult prosecutions, not crimes reported to law enforcement. Those figures emerge much later.

Three of the six victims slain last year were children 10 years old or younger who were killed by family members, Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said.

They included a beaten Northfield toddler who suffered a brain injury and broken back that went untreated for days before he died; a 10-year-old South St. Paul boy poisoned by his mother, who also tried to kill another child and herself; and a Lakeville grandmother who mixed prescription drugs and alcohol and fell asleep atop her infant grandson, smothering him.

Still, deadly violence remains rare in the county.

"Dakota County has averaged four homicides per year, which is remarkably low for a jurisdiction of almost 400,000 persons," Backstrom noted.

Only Farmington and Hastings showed increases in felony crimes charged. Farmington had 41 felonies prosecuted in 2009, compared to 26 in 2008. Hastings saw an increase of four cases, up to 86.

Countywide, the number of illegal drug charges sank by 9 percent. Still, drug offenses continue to represent the biggest category of cases charged by Dakota County. They account for a quarter of the entire felony caseload, with 375 people charged with felony drug crimes last year, compared with 414 in 2008.

"While illegal drug use in Dakota County and across our state continues to be an enormous problem," Backstrom said, "this is the fourth year in a row in which we have seen significant drops in the number of individuals charged with illegal drug crimes in our community -- which is obviously good news."

He said methamphetamine continues to be most often involved in felony drug crimes, though the numbers of those charges "dropped dramatically." Last year, 124 people were charged with meth crimes, compared with 162 in 2008.

No meth labs were seized last year. In 2004, 28 were busted. Backstrom and narcotics officers point to a 2005 state law that has restricted the availability of key ingredients needed for cooking meth.

Backstrom praised the collaboration of prosecutors, corrections officials, judges, law enforcement and criminal justice professionals who are working together in Dakota County's new adult drug court. There are currently 30 offenders in the program, and the first graduation from it was in December. A team identifies and implements ways to help repeat and nonviolent drug offenders stay out of trouble.

Four years ago, it became a felony to strangle or attempt to strangle someone during domestic violence. Fifty-seven people were charged with that offense last year, down from 65 in 2008.

The number of felony level property crimes filed in Dakota County fell by 19 percent last year, with 200 fewer cases last year than the 1,047 in 2008.

Joy Powell • 952-882-9017