Two years after publicly promising to do better, Ramsey County prosecutors are reviewing more sexual assault cases and filing more charges, County Attorney John Choi said Tuesday.

Ramsey County prosecutors filed charges in 150 adult sex assault cases in 2020 — up from 99 in 2017 — and charged about half of cases reviewed last year compared with 43% in 2017.

"We are slowly showing some real progress," Choi said. "There is still a lot more that needs to happen, but we are certainly on the right track."

Choi and police partners shared new investigative strategies and fresh data with the Ramsey County Board on Tuesday. They outlined a series of changes including better police training; more dedicated sex crimes investigators in St. Paul and the suburbs; more support for survivors; and better collaboration between police and prosecutors.

Choi cautioned the early data capture just the first full year of work — a year impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"As we think about justice, it's not like a basketball game," he said. "But numbers can help us understand the trends and the health of the response."

In spring 2019, Choi and leaders from nine police agencies, including St. Paul, Maplewood, Roseville and the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office, signed the "Sexual Assault Response Collaboration" agreement, after a county attorney's office analysis of sex crimes investigations revealed a gap at every level of the criminal justice system, Choi said. Victims were hesitant to report crimes, fearing they would not be believed, police questioned whether prosecutors would pursue charges and prosecutors wondered if it would be too difficult to persuade jurors to convict.

One troubling finding: Two-thirds of cases reported to police never made it to the prosecutor's office for review, Choi said.

"Everyone in our system and culture was assuming the next person in the system wouldn't do anything about it," he said in an interview Monday.

Changing that culture and the system that perpetuated it has been a focus for the past year, Choi said.

Changes have included adding dedicated sex crimes investigators in the St. Paul and Roseville police departments and sheriff's office, inviting survivor advocates to follow-up interviews with police and creating an investigation checklist to ensure uniformity across agencies.

Investigators are also collecting more biological evidence, and police are obtaining more warrants to examine suspects' bodies for DNA. According to prosecutors, 48 suspect exams were completed pursuant to search warrants in 2020 compared with just six exams during a three-year period ending in 2016.

Police investigators and prosecutors now meet regularly to discuss cases, and prosecutors said they are urging police to forward more cases to their office for possible charges.

Karen Kugler, sex crimes prosecutor in the Ramsey County Attorney's Office, said her office is taking a "very aggressive approach to criminal sexual conduct cases."

St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell said the new efforts and collaboration are making a difference. The number of sexual assault cases cleared by arrest in his department jumped from less than 16% in 2017 to nearly 36% in 2020.

"Everyone seems to be paddling in the same direction. Ultimately the result of that is that survivors of sexual assault are being better served and offenders are being held accountable," said Axtell, adding, "We still have a lot of work to do."

Shannon Prather • 651-925-5037