On a typical weekday, dozens of people could normally be seen filling the halls and courtrooms of the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth.

Criminal defendants, whether in custody or out on release, would appear alongside attorneys for brief procedural hearings in mass calendar blocks. Meanwhile, other judges might be presiding over trials, plea hearings, sentencings and all types of civil proceedings in the building's eight other courtrooms.

This past Wednesday, by comparison, there was an eerie quietness in the halls of justice, where nearly all judicial and county offices were shuttered. The public court calendar included just five names — all appearing from the St. Louis County Jail by video for arraignments or probation-violation hearings.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the courts to take steps that are unprecedented in modern history: postponing nearly all cases, temporarily shutting down public service centers and holding many hearings without any of the participants in the same room.

"I've never seen anything like this before," said St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin, who has been practicing law at the courthouse for more than 40 years.

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The situation has forced criminal justice agencies to dramatically alter long-standing practices as the wheels of justice temporarily grind to a halt for most defendants. Most notably, authorities have been working together to significantly reduce the number of people who remain jailed while awaiting future court dates, particularly for nonviolent offenses.

On March 15, two days after Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea first ordered many proceedings to be put on hold, St. Louis County was holding 171 inmates. By the end of the following week, that number had plummeted to just 91 —a nearly 50% reduction that brought the county jail to its lowest occupancy in at least several decades.

Dan Lew, chief public defender for Northeastern Minnesota's 6th Judicial District, said it's the result of an "incredible partnership" that wasn't imaginable just a few weeks ago.

"A smaller jail population has offered an opportunity for some of these many wonderful community members to return where they ought to be — caring for themselves, their family, contributing in every way they can," Lew said.

"And we've had some really positive outcomes. We've not seen an incredible spike in behavior in the community. Folks have been honoring Gov. (Tim) Walz's call to social distance, to shelter, and I think we're in a historic, once-in-a-century type of event where we've started to re-imagine some other healthy options."

Finding 'adequate' alternatives to jail

The work was set into motion immediately after Gildea issued the first order curtailing some court operations late in the day on Friday, March 13. State Public Defender Bill Ward said prosecutors and defense attorneys across Minnesota were on the phone throughout that weekend to begin reviewing jail practices.

What followed was many agreements to free pretrial defendants under a variety of conditions — often including intensive supervision with requirements such as home detention with electronic monitoring. In a number of counties, judges also have issued standing orders allowing for the release of nonviolent arrestees, Ward said.

"We've had a lot of success," he said. "We've been able to get a lot of people released through cooperation with corrections and the courts and the sheriffs. The numbers are down everywhere."

In the 6th Judicial District, which consists of St. Louis, Carlton, Cook and Lake counties, prosecutors and defense attorneys reviewed individual cases and found agreement on appropriate release conditions in many instances, Lew and Rubin said. In cases where disputes still exist, judges have been asked to hear arguments and issue a ruling.

"We were willing to take a look at and at least address those people who were being held pretrial," Rubin said. "The challenge is whether they can still be adequately supervised while out."

With the drastic reduction in jail population, nearly all of St. Louis County's remaining inmates are now being held locally for the first time in many years. The county has long relied on Douglas County and many jails across Minnesota to house overflow inmates.

The St. Louis County Jail is capable of holding about 200 people, but its true operating capacity is around 175 due to unit classifications and spare beds needed to house new bookings.

"I don't believe we've had numbers this low since the new facility opened in 1995," said St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman.

The St. Louis County Jail in Duluth. (File / News Tribune)
The St. Louis County Jail in Duluth. (File / News Tribune)

One sticking point that remains is confinement for already-convicted defendants serving out sentences in local jails or facilities like the Northeast Regional Corrections Center, a minimum-security work farm in Saginaw.

In the region, and across the country, defense attorneys and civil rights advocates have cited public health concerns in seeking the release of many of those inmates, noting that the confined nature and close quarters of correctional facilities make them particularly susceptible to virus outbreaks.

"Any man, woman or child who has lost their liberty in these times, it's our duty — and for the sake of public health — to advocate for our clients (and) seek alternatives other than incarceration," Lew said, suggesting community supervision opportunities.

But he found little agreement from Rubin, who said he "adamantly" opposes early release, other than in limited cases when an inmate has completed treatment or other programming that will "make them safer once they're out."

"To me, there's just not a logical connection between the pandemic and the idea that people serving time should then be released," Rubin said. "But we're starting to see some of these requests come in and, unfortunately, it's going to take time away from the work we have to do, and it's going to take time away from the courts and people in corrections."

Arrests, 911 calls decreasing

Courts remain open across the state, but only for cases involving "an immediate liberty concern" or other time-sensitive issues. There are severe limits on public access and all jury trials have been postponed until at least April 22.

Because courts operate under rights and procedures established by state and federal laws and constitutions, functions such as bail hearings must continue every weekday. Defendants have other rights, such as timelines to contest charges, but those are often being waived, along with the right to be physically present for courtroom hearings.

Even proceedings that are allowed to continue — such plea and sentencing hearings — are being continued by agreement in most cases. In one week, Lew said, attorneys worked to postpone hearings for nearly 300 defendants in the district's six courthouses.

"There's a recognition that the courthouse is a dangerous place for one's health," he said. "It really was an incredible effort to put human safety and public health above what is the so-called standard procedure."

The few hearings that are continuing in the county's Duluth, Hibbing and Virginia courthouses are being conducted via video feed from the jail on Haines Road in Duluth. That eliminates the need to transport defendants and reduces the risk of infectious disease being spread, Litman noted.

"We want to limit the amount of movement of an inmate from one facility to another as much as we can," he said.

Public visits and much of the normal programming at the jail has been suspended during the pandemic. The few new inmates being booked are undergoing medical screenings to try to avoid the introduction of disease.

The St. Louis County has seen fluctuating, but overall decreasing, numbers of 911 calls (top) and deputy responses this month. COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic on March 11 and Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz closed bars and restaurants on March 17. (Submitted graphic)
The St. Louis County has seen fluctuating, but overall decreasing, numbers of 911 calls (top) and deputy responses this month. COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic on March 11 and Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz closed bars and restaurants on March 17. (Submitted graphic)

Deputies are noticeably getting fewer calls for service, Litman said, noting more people are likely staying home with bars, restaurants and many other businesses closed. The county's 911 dispatch center also has seen a drop in calls recently.

Meanwhile, the sheriff has asked police departments across the county to avoid new arrests, with the exception of those who pose an "imminent threat" or are unlikely to appear in court. Instead, officers are being asked to issue citations and refer people with misdemeanor-level warrants to court administration to set up a court date.

While things won't always remain so quiet, Lew said he hopes this difficult period in the nation's history leads to some reconsideration of arrest and bail practices for people who struggle with substance-use disorders, mental illness and adverse childhood experiences, and often remain in jail simply because they can't afford bail.

"I think this may be a historic event to reconsider our priorities," he said, "to see and consider who our neighbor is."

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