Consultant: Too many inmates stay in St. Louis County Jail too longTaxpayers across St. Louis County spent nearly $1.5 million last year to send local criminal suspects to other counties because the jail in Duluth was full.
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune
Taxpayers across St. Louis County spent nearly $1.5 million last year to send local criminal suspects to other counties because the jail in Duluth was full.
Over the past decade, that price tag hit more than $11.7 million — not including staff time and transportation costs for deputies to bring prisoners nearly every day to jails in Pine, Aitkin and Mille Lacs counties in Minnesota and Douglas County in Wisconsin.
All those jails have extra beds and are eager to charge about $50 a day per inmate to take St. Louis County’s overload.
The problem isn’t that the St. Louis County Jail in Duluth is too small, it’s that too many of the prisoners are staying too long, a consultant told county commissioners on Tuesday.
More specifically, the problem is the amount of time suspects and convicted criminals spend in jail awaiting hearings, pre-sentence investigations, sentencing and appeals, said Ken Schoen, former commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Corrections and former director of the University of Minnesota Law School Institute of Criminal Justice.
“It’s not because you have more crime or your jail’s too small; it’s because you have a segment of the (jail) population who is using up all your available space with very long stays,” Schoen said. St. Louis County is “experiencing jail overcrowding issues unlike anywhere else in Minnesota.”
The average person in a St. Louis County courtroom has 5.1 hearings per case. In Rochester courts in Olmsted County, the average person has 4.1 hearings, Schoen said. That difference adds up to hundreds more hearings annually and additional jail time for suspects waiting for hearings, Schoen said. In 2011, the difference meant an extra 2,742 hearings in St. Louis County.
The court system and judges should hold fewer hearings and reduce the amount of time between hearings and reduce the number of continuances, Schoen recommended. “Some of this is really saying to the judges: ‘Take control of your courtroom.’ ”
Schoen and others said changes already are under way, and that 6th Judicial District Chief Judge Sean Floerke is working with county staff to institute changes that might reduce the jail problem. Floerke was out of town Tuesday and unreachable for comment. But assistant chief Judge Gary Pagliaccetti said all judges in the district are aware of the overcrowding problem and are “exploring options to try to solve it.”
Crime rate down, inmates up
On average in 2011, the county paid to house 255 inmates every night, 170 in its own jail and the other 85 in other county jails.
About 51 percent of the stays at the St. Louis County Jail are three days or less, and 75 percent stay 15 days or less. But 587 long-term inmates — about 12 percent of the total jail population in 2011 — stayed an average of 106 days. Several stayed for more than a year. And one suspect, eventually convicted of murder, stayed 1,523 days, nearly four years, in the county jail awaiting his hearings, trial and sentencing before finally moving on to the state prison system.
Those 587 long-term inmates essentially gobbled up the jail’s capacity for the entire year, Schoen said.
Schoen noted the problem has worsened even as overall crime rates have dropped in recent years. The county jail went from a 10 percent overage a decade ago to 50 percent in 2011, Schoen found.
Schoen looked at the number of jail beds both per capita and per crimes committed in the county, and the Duluth lockup is nearly dead-on average among Minnesota counties with similar populations and similar crime rates.
Only Carlton County is experiencing the same kind of overcrowding and expense of using jails, Schoen noted. Both Carlton and St. Louis counties are in the 6th Judicial District.
Alternatives to jail
Schoen said the problem has many contributing factors and many potential solutions:
“Unless these fixes are applied, the county will continue to spend millions of dollars unnecessarily” housing inmates in other jails, Schoen told commissioners.
Schoen said he has met with nearly all judges in the county and that most had never seen data before explaining the problem.
County Commissioner Keith Nelson said he was reluctant to suggest that judges change their procedures, noting the board holds no authority over the court system.
“I think we can challenge judges in reasonable and appropriate ways, and I think they’re already responding,” said Commissioner Steve O’Neil of Duluth.
Because 75 percent of the inmates are in jail before their case goes to trial, Kay Arola, director of Arrowhead Regional Corrections, the five-county regional criminal justice consortium, said efforts are under way to shorten the time between arrest and trial.
“We’ve already been looking at (streamlining) our pretrial process,” Arola said, noting the system also is “trying to shave another week” off the time between a verdict and sentencing and reducing as well the amount of jail time for less-severe probation violations.
St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman said a solution appears within reach.
“Right now, I think we’re getting some traction,” Litman said. “For the first time since I’ve been around … I think we have everyone on board to get some things done.”