Hennepin County is rolling out a project to avoid jail time for people accused of nonviolent crimes and misdemeanors, an effort that could reduce jail crowding, save money for taxpayers and reduce what are often disproportionate burdens on the poor and people of color.

For the first time, individuals accused of low-level crimes, such as failing to appear in court for traffic violations, are being issued special warrants and then released by police instead of being booked into the Hennepin County jail.

County court officials are also exploring major reforms to the bail system, so that more low-risk defendants accused of low-level misdemeanors can await trial at home, instead of in a jail cell at a cost of $132 per day to county taxpayers.

The reforms, which are still in their early stages but echo a larger national shift in the philosophy of crime and punishment, are expected to reduce the jail’s inmate population by up to 10 percent, potentially saving the county hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. Already, the changes have increased the number of defendants who make their court appearances and have allowed Minneapolis police to focus on more serious crimes by cutting the thousands of hours they spend transporting minor offenders to and from jail.

This summer, Hennepin County completed its first detailed analysis of the downtown Minneapolis jail population in nearly two decades. Officials found that of the roughly 35,000 bookings last year, nearly half were for low-level misdemeanors, such as loitering or driving after a license revocation.

Among these are a huge volume of arrests for people who simply miss a scheduled court appearance. Most of these offenders spend less than a day in jail, but some languish for days until a court hearing because they can’t afford to pay even a small amount of bail. The public cost of holding these defendants in jail often exceeds the amount of the unpaid fines that may have led to their arrest, county officials said.

“The frustration is, we are spending a lot of time and money on low-level people who do not pose a public safety risk,” said Hennepin County Assistant Chief Judge Toddrick Barnette, who is on a team of county court and law enforcement officials that helped craft the changes. “This will help us focus on the violent criminals who are actually hurting others.”

Seven days for a minor offense

The reforms come amid a nationwide push to break the costly cycle of arrest and incarceration of people awaiting court proceedings for nonviolent offenses — a cycle, researchers said, that disproportionately affects low-income minorities and people with mental illnesses. A large and growing number of cities, including New Orleans, Philadelphia and San Francisco, are re-evaluating their practices amid charges that far too many black Americans — particularly young black men — are being arrested and jailed for traffic or public order offenses. Many are unable to post bail, and find themselves losing their jobs or even their housing as they await a court hearing

Just last week, the Obama administration entered the debate. In a court brief, the U.S. Justice Department argued that the city of Calhoun, Ga., violated the Fourth Amendment’s equal protection and due process clauses by detaining people solely because they are unable to pay fixed bail amounts, while those who have the means to pay are promptly released. In Calhoun, arrestees too poor to afford their release were kept in custody up to seven days before their first court appearance, often for minor traffic offenses, the agency said.

Yet practices similar to those denounced by the Justice Department in Georgia have long persisted in Hennepin County and across the nation, criminal justice experts said.

Mary Moriarty, Hennepin County’s chief public defender, pointed to the recent case of a man cited for urinating in public, a misdemeanor. The man, Lorenzo Staten, 60, failed to appear for his initial court hearing in May, and a judge promptly issued a bench warrant for his arrest. However, Staten never received the court summons because it was sent to an old address. Months later, he was picked up by police on a Friday; and spent the weekend in a county jail cell as he awaited a court hearing. Staten was eventually ordered to pay $128 in fines, but the cost of detaining him over four days topped $500, court records showed.

This process often encourages poor people to plead guilty, because it reduces their jail time, according to recent research. In Philadelphia, defendants who were detained before trial were 13 percent more likely to be convicted than similarly situated defendants who were not detained, primarily through an increase in guilty pleas among defendants who would otherwise have been acquitted or had the charges dropped, according to a study earlier this year.

“The fact is, people who are held in jail [before trial] are more likely to plead guilty to things they didn’t do — to keep their jobs and get back to their families,” Moriarty said.

Send a text

Initially, the primary target of the effort is the huge number of people arrested for missing court dates. Last year, Hennepin County judges issued a staggering, 21,473 “failure-to-appear” bench warrants — issued after a suspect failed to appear for a court hearing. More than one-fourth of the warrants were issued for minor traffic offenses, such as driving with a suspended license. Many offenders failed to show because they had moved and the legal paperwork was sent to the wrong address; others simply forget, attorneys said.

Now, many of these low-level offenders will get a second chance. Last month, Minneapolis police officers began handing out special warrants to people who missed their initial court appearances on most low-level misdemeanors. As a result, hundreds of people who previously might have been arrested and brought into jail are given fresh court dates and then released. The early results are promising: 70 percent of those issued a new date appeared in court for their hearings.

To increase court appearances, the county has also started calling and texting people several days ahead of their court dates, much the way dentistry clinics call to remind patients about upcoming appointments.

“This just shows that, for most people, when they know they have a court date, they will be responsible and show up,” said Mary Ellen Heng, deputy Minneapolis city attorney.

Though designed to reduce unnecessary detentions, these initiatives also benefit public safety by keeping more police on their beats, officials said.

“Ultimately, what this does, is save our officers the 45-minute to 90-minute trip all the way down to the jail for nonchronic, nonviolent offenders,” said Minneapolis Police Inspector Catherine Johnson. “That means we can expand our resources and our time in other areas where we can have a much greater impact.”


Twitter: @chrisserres