Ramsey County leaders plan to ease the county's reliance on a cash bail system for criminal suspects awaiting charges and trial, saying it unduly burdens the poor and exacerbates racial inequities in the criminal justice system.
County Attorney John Choi unveiled a draft plan Tuesday in which the Sheriff's Office will use a new assessment tool to release some low-risk suspects before prosecutors make a charging decision or they make their first court appearance.
Under the plan, jail staffers will assess the risk to public safety and release some nonviolent suspects shortly after their arrest, assigning them an appointment with prosecutors.
Suspects currently under arrest are held in jail for up to 48 hours until prosecutors make a charging decision and a judge determines bail during a first court appearance.
The county is partnering with groups convened by national philanthropy Arnold Ventures to develop the assessment tool, which Choi hopes to roll out in 2021. Ramsey County was chosen as one of a handful of "research-action sites" across the nation and has committed to a five-year partnership, after which it will study bail reform outcomes.
Choi said the county is also working with community organizations including the ACLU of Minnesota and the Minnesota Freedom Fund.
Communities and states across the country, including New York, New Jersey and California, have been reducing the use of cash bail and in some cases eliminating it.
According to the ACLU, about 700,000 people were locked up in local jails on an average day in 2015 when reform efforts first started, and most of them weren't convicted of a crime. Time in custody can result in lost wages, lost jobs and harm to families before a person finally goes to court, Choi said.
It's also a system that benefits the well-to-do, according to a report that Ramsey County made to Arnold Ventures.
"While the cash bail system is working as designed and administered under state statute, it conflicts with our racial equity value," according to the report. "Individuals with financial resources avail themselves of the cash bail system and are released from custody. Those that do not have the financial resources, on the other hand, remain in custody solely because of the inability to pay."
Sometimes, according to the report, it can influence the outcome of cases: "Innocent individuals may also plead guilty in hopes of spending less time behind bars."
Choi said that reform work at the "front door" of the criminal justice system can reduce harm to individuals and the community. The statutory authority given to the prosecutor and sheriff allows for the implementation of the new assessment tool, according to the county report.
Choi said he'd also like to see changes in state law to reduce the use of bail across the state.
County commissioners praised the work, saying it's part of a series of efforts to reform the criminal justice system and make it more equitable.
The county already has eliminated more than $700,000 in fines and fees levied against suspects and defendants ranging from the cost of medicine in jail to fees for home electronic monitoring. Last year it also closed Boys Totem Town, the county's century-old juvenile detention campus.
"This is just amazing and incredible work being done in partnership with our community and with others in our systems," said County Board Chairwoman Toni Carter. She added she was pleased criminal justice reform is happening "upstream" in the system before individuals are jailed or charged.
"This is really good stuff," said Commissioner Jim McDonough. "We are dealing with stuff that was established at the start of this country," referring to the long history of cash bail. "We are figuring out how to take that apart and do better."