Hennepin County prosecutors will stop seeking bail for people arrested for several low-level crimes, a move aimed at easing the financial burden for hundreds of residents who get into scrapes with the law each year.

County Attorney Mike Freeman said Wednesday the new policy goes into effect Jan. 1 for 19 crimes ranging from motor vehicle theft to low-level drug possession.

"We don't want to hold anybody [in jail] unless it's absolutely necessary," Freeman said at a news conference with Attorney General Keith Ellison and Washington County Attorney Pete Orput. "No one should be punished for being poor."

The change applies to offenses such as forgery, damage to property, identify theft, mail theft, insurance fraud and possession of counterfeit or stolen checks, among others.

Advocates from the Hennepin County Public Defender's Office and the Legal Rights Center said Freeman should do more, since bail is typically not set for those offenses already.

"It feels insufficient," Legal Rights Center Executive Director Sarah Davis said of the policy. "It doesn't appear that it's going to have a meaningful impact."

Judges don't set bail for first-time offenders charged with one of the 19 offenses, said Hennepin County Chief Public Defender Mary Moriarty.

"Essentially [prosecutors are] saying they're not asking for bail on cases where judges are going to let [suspects] out anyway as they should under Minnesota law," Moriarty said. "These are pretty easy picking."

Convictions for the crimes are presumed to result in probationary sentences instead of jail or prison time, she added.

Freeman's office pushed back on their response.

"Our numbers show that there are significant numbers of defendants who do get bail assigned, so I'm not sure what their definition of typical is," said Hennepin County Attorney's Office spokesman Chuck Laszewski. "It will have a real impact on hundreds, and possibly more than a thousand, individuals every year."

The County Attorney's Office charges about 10,000 felony cases every year.

According to Freeman's office: In 2019, 3,789 cases were charged with one of the 19 crimes; people in 892 of those cases posted bond, meaning bail could have been set in more cases. Freeman's office was not able to provide a general bail range for those offenses.

The policy will reduce racial disparities in the jail, Freeman said. Black suspects made up 57% of those charged in the 19 offenses last year.

Orput and Ellison praised the change, noting that many suspects can be released without fear of endangering the public. Orput said he would adopt the policy because bail is designed to ensure a suspect returns to court, not to punish people with insufficient funds.

"We are not lawyers who are simply zealot advocates," Ellison said. "We are ministers of justice and have a responsibility to do the right thing. Our goal is not a conviction; it is to achieve a just result, to protect the public, and in that regard, your proposals, I think, are perfectly aligned."

Prosecutors will ask for bail in "exceptional cases" — if a suspect has outstanding charges or a history of not showing up in court, Freeman added.

Davis said the discretion to request bail is problematic.

"When you maintain cash bail, you are in a situation where people who have money can … buy freedom," Davis said. "You're criminalizing poverty."

The county can employ other options — GPS tracking, mental health support, chemical dependency treatment — to ensure suspects return to court, Moriarty said.

Being held in jail, even for a day, can harm people's housing, employment and the outcome of their cases, activists said.

"It's easy to roll out a policy that really has no impact in many ways," Moriarty said. "It takes courage to take a look at what we have been doing in the past on other types of offenses and say, 'You know what, we don't need to keep these people in jail.' "

Freeman said the policy is part of ongoing efforts to reduce the jail population. The county reduced the number of inmates this year by charging suspects via summons, which involves no arrests, and booking and immediately releasing others, he said.

"It's a good initial step," said Elizer Darris, an organizer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota. "Clearly we would want the county attorney and the state of Minnesota to go much further as we attempt to dismantle cash bail in Minnesota."

In September, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi presented an initiative to reduce the county's use of cash bail. Ramsey County is creating a new assessment tool to release some low-risk, nonviolent suspects before prosecutors make a charging decision or before a first court appearance at which judges set bail.

Freeman, Ellison and Orput said they, along with Choi, will continue to push for statewide bail reform at the legislative level. Freeman said he hoped to offer more reforms in six months to a year, but declined to provide specifics.

"We do strongly encourage the Legislature to sit down and do real bail reform," Ellison said.

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708

Twitter: @ChaoStrib