Ramsey County has reduced the number of people sent to prison by nearly half in the past decade as part of a focused strategy to end the era of mass incarcerations.

Ramsey County’s success with the program stands in sharp contrast with the state and neighboring metro counties where incarceration numbers climbed or stagnated for much of that same time.

“We should only send people to prison who absolutely need to be there,” Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said. “We are clearly different from the rest of the state of Minnesota.”

The new challenge for Choi and county leaders, they say, is to drive down the numbers even further.

Choi, county commissioners and probation staffers, state Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell, Ramsey County Chief District Judge Leonardo Castro and County Public Defender Jim Fleming met virtually last week to discuss the downward trend, which includes the number of offenders at the county workhouse and those on probation.

Ramsey County sent 652 people to state prisons in 2019, a 43% decrease from the 1,143 people the county had incarcerated in 2010. That includes people committing new offenses as well those violating probation and parole.

In Hennepin County, 1,601 people were sent to prison in 2010. That number declined to 1,491 last year, a dip of just under 7%. Statewide, about 7,000 people were sent to prison in 2010; that number climbed to 8,200 in 2017 before dropping to 6,912 in 2019, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

Choi points to national polls and studies showing that U.S. society is moving away from punitive, get-tough-on-crime measures in favor of more spending on social and economic problems — homelessness, drug addiction and mental health issues — that often lead to criminal behavior.

The public now looks at the use of prisons with a more critical eye, Choi said. They want to know the return on investment in prisons for public safety and overall community wellness, he said.

“We have just done it because we’ve been told this is what we are supposed to do,” Choi said.

But in recent years, Ramsey County leaders have been pushing through a variety of sweeping criminal justice changes. They include eliminating $1 million in fees and fines levied against defendants and partnering with a national nonprofit to study ways to reduce time spent in jail before conviction.

Choi’s office launched an expungement program to help offenders clean up their records, expanded a felony diversion program and designated an attorney to weigh collateral consequences of convictions — including deportation.

The county’s most dramatic move came last year with the closure of Boys Totem Town, a century-old juvenile detention campus in the Battle Creek area. The county now directs most teen offenders to at-home and community-based programs, which county officials say lead to better results.

The decline in Ramsey County’s prison population comes as FBI data shows a decline in violent crime across Minnesota over the past decade. In 2018, there were 220 reports of violent crime for every 100,000 Minnesota residents, down from 265 the decade before.

There are other reasons for the decline in incarcerations, Choi said — the main one being a significant philosophical change in the ranks of judges and prosecutors.

“A lot of the judges have retired. There are new judges who look at things in a very, very different way,” he said. Many of them, appointed by former DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, are more attuned to inequities that play out in the criminal justice system, he said.

In his own office, Choi said his prosecutors are more amenable to plea deals where a judge examines a probation report and determines the sentence, rather than the previous system where prosecutors were more likely to demand specific jail or prison time as part of the deal.

“Two-thirds of the prosecutors in my office I have now hired,” he said. “We have changes in the public defenders office. In some ways, the culture is changing.”

Fleming, who oversees a team of public defenders, said there has been a change in culture across the system and in his own office. He has hired a team of four social workers to advise attorneys advocating for their clients during sentencing. They’re making stronger cases that both defendants and society are best served by not sending them to prison. And his attorneys are advocating more aggressively to keep clients out of prison on probation revocations, he said.

Schnell called Ramsey County a “shining star” for its efforts to reduce prison sentences. The average prison sentence in Minnesota is about 31 months, and it’s often much shorter for offenders doing time for probation revocations. There isn’t much programming that can be offered to help them, he said.

“People are actually being warehoused during that incarceration,” Schnell said. “It increases the likelihood of re­offense.”

Choi said Ramsey County needs to continue to push forward with equity efforts. Black and Native Americans are still disproportionately sentenced to prison when compared with their overall percentage of the population. About 52% of Ramsey County offenders sent to prison from 2010 to 2019 were Black, even though Black residents only make up 11.4% of the county’s population.

The number of offenders locked up in less restrictive facilities in Ramsey County also has declined dramatically.

Offenders sentenced to a year or less typically serve their sentences at the workhouse, and the county has slashed admissions to its workhouse programs by nearly half over the decade.

Admissions through Ramsey County court sentences dropped by half from about 4,000 in 2010 to 2,000 in 2019.

Ramsey County probation officers are supervising fewer offenders, slipping from 16,711 in 2010 to 12,787 last year.

A driving principle in recent years has been building up more community programs and using confinement less often, said John Klavins, director of Ramsey County Community Corrections.

“Our job is about helping people change, offering opportunities as best we can, providing accountability as well and ensuring equity across the probation system,” he said.