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Local officials experiment with alternatives to jail

Renita Syas stands near the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth recently. After spending more than three weeks in the St. Louis County Jail in 2013, Syas says the work of the courthouse saved her life. (Clint Austin / / 4
Renita Syas of Duluth talks about her experience in the St. Louis County Jail and how it was a turning point in her life. (Clint Austin / / 4
Inmates at the St. Louis County Jail are provided phones in a large day room to make calls. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com3 / 4
In the general population cells at the St. Louis County Jail inmates can press buttons for several services. One is for listening to a selection of six radio stations, another to contact a corrections officer by intercom and a third to open the door. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com4 / 4

It's been five years since Renita Syas was booked into the St. Louis County Jail.

She spent three weeks and a day in custody — a stay that doesn't exactly stand out in the daily churn of the county lock-up — but it was enough for the Duluth woman to decide she was never coming back.

"I just got really sick of it," said Syas. "I decided I didn't want to do this anymore. I didn't want to go spend another 22 days in jail. That was scary enough for me. I knew I didn't want to live my life like that any more."

Syas' journey to jail is one that police, attorneys, judges and probation officers say they see in criminal defendants on a daily basis.

Born in the Twin Cities and mostly raised in Chicago, she was a teenager when she first moved to Duluth with her mother in the late 1990s. Syas, 36, said she had been abused by a family member from a young age, but for years she refused to talk about it and the trauma went unaddressed well into adulthood.

Renita Syas of Duluth talks about her experience in the St. Louis County Jail. (Clint Austin / DNT)

In Duluth, she hit the streets. Syas turned to alcohol, and to a lesser extent drugs, as a way to "self-medicate." She racked up a number of minor criminal offenses over the years.

But in 2013, Syas found herself in what she now describes as a "tornado." Her partner at the time went to jail and Syas said she found herself feeling alone and helpless. Mental illness coupled with chemical dependency overwhelmed her; she was soon arrested and faced multiple felony charges, including assault and robbery.

The jail stay, Syas said, was reality telling her to wake up. She nearly lost her apartment while in custody. After pleading guilty to the assault charge, her saving grace was an opportunity on pretrial release.

"I pleaded out and I was just kind of waiting for that sentencing date," she said. "I got pretrial release kind of at the last minute, so that's how I was able to come home."

The release from jail allowed Syas to begin putting the pieces back together in her life. She ultimately had an 81-month prison sentence stayed for five years of supervised probation.

Probation was not a cakewalk, however. Syas went to treatment and was was subject to electronic monitoring and random drug and alcohol testing. She had to make frequent appearances in the South St. Louis County Mental Health Court program. She was required to complete the Duluth Bethel Female Offender Program.

"I was really going through some mental health issues and trying to deal with my housing situation," she said. "I remember just being afraid of coming out of jail. 'Can I really do this? This is so much.' It was a real struggle but first I had to get my health in line and then work on completing all the things I had to complete. The mental health court really helped me change my life. The Bethel program, too."

Today, Syas is a success story for local officials who are seeking to find alternatives that offer rehabilitation rather than incarceration for many offenders. As St. Louis County continues to grapple with a jail crowding crisis that is among the worst in the state, attention has shifted toward programming that addresses the needs of those who land in the criminal justice system.

In recent years, an expansion in probation services has allowed more defendants to get out of jail on supervised release while their cases are pending. And a reassessment of post-conviction probation violations is seeking to allow offenders an alternative to a repeat trip to jail.

"The real measure is probably not the current jail population but how many lives can find a successful pathway because we had contact with them," said Dan Lew, the region's chief public defender. "That's how we've got to measure our outcomes. Not our jail population, and certainly not how long we can incarcerate folks. How many folks are living better?"

Court slowdown

An inmate looks through available reading materials at the St. Louis County Jail. Bob King / DNTOn any given day, about 80 percent of the inmates at the St. Louis County Jail are in pretrial custody.

Yet to be convicted of a crime, how long they remain in jail is largely dependant on the progress of their case through a court system that is seeing increasingly crowded dockets as case filings continue to climb.

"Cases used to move much quicker," said St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin, who has 40 years of experience in the local criminal justice system. "Now we've got people who are on pretrial sitting in jail for far too long."

The St. Louis County Jail has trended at or above national percentages for pretrial incarceration. A February report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 65 percent of inmates in county and city jails across the country were in the pretrial phase in 2016.

"Almost all of the jail growth in the U.S. since 2000 has been in pretrial incarceration," said Cherise Fanno Burdeen, CEO of the Maryland-based Pretrial Justice Institute.

Rubin said some judges are better than others at moving cases along, but said the concept of a speedy trial now seems like a relic of a different era.

Advances in technology are leading to far more evidence that must be processed and reviewed by both law enforcement and attorneys. Gone are the days when a criminal case largely relied on a handful of typewritten police reports.

Today, there is DNA and advanced drug tests — and a shortage of the chemists at the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension crime lab who are qualified to analyze them. There are body cameras videos that must be reviewed by the prosecution and defense attorneys. A forensic examination of cellphone or computer data can add hundreds of pages to a case file.

Those are all great tools for the justice system but a significant burden in keeping cases moving forward, according to Lew.

"A typical case now, it's thousands of pages of discovery," he said. "We're talking terabytes of discovery. Which can only be accessed when you go in and you plug in a huge external hard drive and play 80 body cams. Just think of that, 80 body cams. This is just to open the file and read it for the first time. Leaving aside the time it takes to talk about DNA and forensic science, which is terribly time consuming — and our clients need that time."

State law prescribes that 90 percent of criminal cases should be completed within three months, 97 percent should be done in six months and 99 percent should be over within one year.

Minor criminal cases that typically wouldn't result in any significant jail time — a first-time drunken driving offense or a fifth-degree assault, for instance — are generally meeting those marks. But the more serious cases that could result in a lengthy jail stay are more problematic.

In 2017, nearly 10 percent of "major criminal" cases — generally felonies and gross misdemeanors — went beyond a year in St. Louis County. That number has averaged about 8.5 percent since 2013, roughly equal with the statewide average over that time.

"The state has a hard time with the major criminal cases," said Marieta Johnson, the 6th District court administrator. "That would be one case type where we're all the same."

Inmates at the St. Louis County Jail are provided phones, (Bob King / DNT)

More supervision

With most inmates awaiting their next court date, a study from former Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner Ken Schoen found that about 300 people who were locked up in the St. Louis County Jail in 2012 could have been safely released into the community with certain conditions.

"These were predominantly offenders who were there on higher-risk offenses or had prior offenses," said Wally Kostich, chief probation officer for the five-county Arrowhead Regional Corrections. "Maybe some of them had been on probation before and violated the terms."

Schoen's analysis provided the spark for a new initiative: intensive pretrial release.

St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman in 2013 offered to reallocate some money from his jail budget to the probation agency, allowing ARC to add two probation officers in Duluth and two on the Iron Range strictly assigned to defendants who could be released into the community with a higher level of supervision.

Kostich said the program offers a level of attention that is similar to what an offender would receive after leaving prison on supervised release, or parole.

"You see very little of these IPT agents in the office," he said. "They're more on the streets seeing people in the community, verifying work status, making sure they're going to their treatment programs. There's drug testing involved. ... These are people that normally would be sitting in custody had it not been for the ability to add these positions and see people out in the community."

The program has a capacity of 50-60 clients each in Duluth and on the Range. With each day of incarceration for a single inmate costing St. Louis County taxpayers about $131, that adds up.

An Arrowhead Regional Corrections analysis found potential savings of $10.6 million through 2016, after 2 ½ years of operation for the program.

"As a judge, it's a great alternative, frankly, because typically the person has failed on regular pretrial release, " said 6th Judicial District Chief Judge Sally Tarnowski. "I tend to think that many, if not most, of the people at the jail have either a chemical dependency or alcohol issue, and if we just let them out of jail without addressing that we're just going to create this revolving door where they're going to get back out in community and go back to old behaviors and not get treated for the very thing that's brought them to the jail."

In the general population cells at the St. Louis County Jail inmates can press buttons for several services. (Bob King / DNT)

Better conditions

The success of the intensive pretrial release program prompted Kostich and partnering agencies to take a look at a similar initiative on the back end of criminal cases.

It was apparent that most post-conviction inmates were in custody for probation violations — often technical infractions, such as missing an appointment, failing to check in with their probation officer or failing a drug test.

Rather than filing a formal violation report with the court and asking the judge to issue a warrant, ARC developed an alternative sanctions program that can be utilized in many instances.

The program offers the client an opportunity to sign a contract with some new conditions, such as additional days of community service, an alcohol assessment, counseling or cognitive skills programming, depending on the offense. If they agree, as most do, the contract goes to the sentencing judge for approval.

"It's a way to address violations in lieu of a defendant having to appear in front of the court," Kostich said. "By lessening those appearances, we can hopefully give the court a chance to dispose of more high-priority cases in a quicker fashion."

Like intensive pretrial release, the program was initially started with funds from the Sheriff's Office. It now operates under ARC's regular budget, with two full-time agents handling the program.

In any phase of supervision, Kostich said it's important to tailor conditions to hone in on the needs of the individual. He said most clients will get a standard, comprehensive assessment to determine the appropriate level of supervision and programming.

"Sometimes the more conditions imposed upon an individual the more difficult it is for that individual to be able to maintain a crime-free lifestyle," he said. "It's just not a helter skelter that we're just throwing up a bunch of conditions because I'm a true believer in the more we throw out there, the more difficult it is to succeed."

Giving back

In just five years, Syas has made a 180-degree turn in her life. Soon after graduating from mental health court and completing the Bethel program, she stopped by the CHUM emergency shelter in downtown Duluth to pick up an application.

She said it took near-daily calls, but she finally convinced the organization to give her a job. Not long after, she was offered another employment opportunity at Life House, the youth homeless outreach agency, where she now works full time as the activities coordinator.

Syas knows her line of work well. She said she benefitted from the services of both CHUM and Life House earlier in life.

"My life is not perfect by a long shot but I've bought a house, I've had a kid, I now have a vehicle — all these things that I've wanted," she said. "I can't complain."

Syas recalled initially having a dismissive attitude toward the court and the people trying to help her. But the trip to jail, and the resulting opportunities to get treatment and resources, changed that.

Today, Syas makes visits to the mental health court and crisis-intervention training sessions hosted by the Duluth Police Department, volunteering to share her first-person account of going to jail and navigating the criminal justice system.

"I've lived it, I've experienced it, and it was not too long ago," Syas said. "I share that testimonial every day of my life now in the job I work in."