Law enforcement agencies throughout the Twin Cities are suspending most jail bookings for low-level crimes to avoid clogging county jails as public defenders called for the release of nonviolent inmates at risk of contracting the novel coronavirus.

Under recommendation from county attorneys, local departments are focusing their energy on detaining violent individuals who represent an imminent threat to public safety, rather than misdemeanor cases that can be cited and released. It’s the latest step made by courthouses and jails to curtail bookings and court appearances for nonviolent and low-level offenses.

“We’re asking deputies to use common sense,” said Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher, explaining that a ­warrant for minor traffic-related offenses should no longer land someone behind bars. “It’s not helpful or necessary for them to be brought to jail. … All we’re doing is bringing another potentially contaminated person to the facility.”

Fletcher hopes to see a reduction of 50 inmates by April 1 — either through early release or fewer bookings. That would allow him to set aside quarantine space, should anyone exhibit symptoms of COVID-19.

Washington County Attorney Pete Orput issued a memo to staff instituting a higher threshold for jail bookings. Violent felony crimes, such as armed robberies, aggravated assaults and rape would result in jail time as usual, while some DUIs and other misdemeanors will no longer require holds.

“That’s what the courts will allow us to handle,” Orput said.

Similar directives were handed down in Scott County, the only region of the seven-county metro that has yet to see a confirmed case of the respiratory disease.

“You can’t put blinders on, but you’re definitely prioritizing who is going into our jail,” said Shakopee Police Chief Jeff Tate, adding that domestic violence cases are still a priority.

Those actions mirror jurisdictions around the country, including Milwaukee, that also began suspending jail bookings for low-level offenders this week.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said Tuesday that his office is reviewing a list of about 80 county jail inmates for possible release, adding that “a bunch” would be freed from custody sometime this week. The cases are low-level felonies such as property crimes, he said.

“Absolutely the first priority is public safety and protection of victims,” Freeman said. “However, I think some folks here can be released under conditions that don’t challenge or impede your public safety or protection of the victims.”

The Minneapolis City Attorney’s Office could not be reached for comment Tuesday about whether it is working with authorities to release anyone in custody on misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor charges.

Prosecutors and public defenders will review bail amounts and submit new written recommendations for a judge’s approval in order to expedite a process that normally takes place in person in a courtroom, Freeman said.

The move comes just two days after state Chief Public Defender Bill Ward called for public defenders, county attorneys and judges to work together to either reduce bail for defendants who are in county jails, or to release them to prevent the spread of the virus in jails.

“It’s been crazy the last few days,” Ward said. “We have great leadership, though, for the metro areas and parts of outstate Minnesota, and I really appreciate them working with us, but unfortunately some county attorneys aren’t addressing the issue in the way I think they should be.”

Also Tuesday, Ramsey County Chief Judge John Guthmann issued an order allowing the release of some inmates from the county workhouse to slow the virus’ spread behind bars.

Guthmann’s order allows community corrections to release some inmates before the end of their sentence. They must serve the rest of their term on electronic home monitoring. Fifteen inmates qualified.

Hennepin County Chief Judge Ivy Bernhardson issued a similar order Monday. Hennepin County Community Corrections released all of those who qualified — 18 of 273 inmates — on electronic home monitoring Monday and Tuesday.

The Minnesota state court system announced Tuesday that it would temporarily halt driver’s license suspension and late fees in a bid to slow foot traffic in courthouses during the pandemic.

The changes went into effect Monday and will be in place for the next 30 days. During that time, the courts will stop sending late penalty notices or assessing late penalties for citations. They also will cease an automated process for suspending licenses of drivers who fail to appear in court.

The federal court system in Minnesota took its previous suspension of jury trials a step further Tuesday. Per an order from Minnesota Chief Judge John Tunheim, all criminal proceedings are now put on hold until April 16, outside special exceptions from a judge. That includes grand jury proceedings and petty offense hearings.

Last Friday, Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea issued her first decision on court operations in response to COVID-19, ordering that high-priority cases continue while low- and medium-priority cases be postponed for two weeks. The initial order left most state court functions intact, although Gildea strongly encouraged judges and attorneys to hold hearings via teleconference or phone when possible.

Trials that are underway were ordered to continue until their resolution, and new trials would be granted in “high priority” and “super high” priority cases and for defendants who had demanded a speedy trial under Gildea’s initial order.

But many public defenders and criminal justice reformers are pushing to suspend all jury trials.

“This is like 1918 all over again,” said Ramsey County Chief Public Defender Jim Fleming. “[Jurors] are worried about catching this virus. Is that going to be an attentive jury?”


Staff writers Stephen Montemayor and Andy Mannix contributed to this report. 612-270-4708 612-673-4648