St. Louis County seeks to buck trend as jail growth surges nationwide

When St. Louis County opened its new jail in 1995, it was touted as a much-needed replacement for an antiquated, 1920s-era facility in downtown Duluth.

Inmates at the St. Louis County Jail pass time watching TV and working a puzzle in the general population area Wednesday afternoon, while another stops for a moment before heading back into his cell. The men's faces have been blurred as requested by the jail. Bob King /

When St. Louis County opened its new jail in 1995, it was touted as a much-needed replacement for an antiquated, 1920s-era facility in downtown Duluth.

The Haines Road complex was state-of-the-art and built for the future, capable of holding nearly 200 inmates at a time when the county was housing an average of about 100 people on any given day.

But its population kept growing.

Within a year, the jail was holding an average of 135 people a day. By the early 2000s, it was full and officials were forced to start moving prisoners to other county jails. In the peak year of 2011, St. Louis County was in custody of 255 people on a given day and spent $1.6 million to house inmates in other jurisdictions.

It's a trend that's occurring not only in the Northland but across the country - and one officials are working to address. Nationwide, according to the Vera Institute for Justice, local incarceration rates have quadrupled since the 1970s, with the greatest growth seen in small and mid-sized communities.


"The population of this county has been stable," St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman said. "We've been at or near 200,000 people for my entire 16 years as sheriff, and well before that. And when you look at the demographics of our county - we're aging, we're not getting younger - so that tells me that our numbers should be going down or that our jail is adequately sized for our population and our crime trends."

The swelling jail population has been been attributed to any number of factors - drug addiction, mental illness, prolonged court proceedings and prohibitive bail practices among them.

In his first term, Litman brought in the National Institution of Corrections to examine the county's predicament. The federal agency made a recommendation that has been adopted by many counties over the past 20 years - build bigger.

Sheriff Ross Litman FILE.jpg
St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman. Photos by Bob King.

Litman didn't want to do that.

"I don't think that's wise," he said. "I've been really hesitant to build a new jail or an addition in lieu of trying to work with everybody to streamline our processes and ensure that everything is working smoothly. Let's utilize everything we have in place now versus adding to it. It's the 'Field of Dreams' thing - if you build it, they will come."

That opinion, shared by fellow officials in the local criminal justice system, has forced a reckoning on incarceration practices. Agencies are experimenting with ways to reduce jail stays, allow more defendants out on supervised release and seek alternatives to arrests for low-level offenses and warrants.

The results can only be measured over time, but officials see hope in a new philosophy aimed at allowing more community supervision, coupled with access to treatment programs and other resources.


Early statistics seem to suggest some of the reform efforts could be making an impact. Inmates today are averaging shorter stays in the St. Louis County Jail. The daily population is hovering around 200. And taxpayer costs are down with fewer transportation expenses.

"If we can all be committed to the principle that folks can live really healthy, productive lives within the community, how do we get there?" asked Dan Lew, chief public defender for Northeastern Minnesota. "I believe we can get there. But it can't be another generation of mass incarceration. It can't be."

A typical cell in the St. Louis County Jail.

Driving forces

Over the 21st century, experts say, county jails have become the de facto mental health and chemical dependency repositories for most communities.

In recent years, St. Louis and Carlton counties have ranked among the highest per capita areas for opioid overdoses across Minnesota. Meanwhile, the two counties have been struggling with what are among the worst jail crowding issues in the state.

Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken said his department has seen a 50 percent increase in mental health-related calls over the past decade. It's evident, he said, that the problem has been exacerbated by the national opioid epidemic.

"There's science now showing that there is a direct correlation," he said. "I think that sometimes when people think about opioid addiction they think of shooting heroin, which is just one modality of getting opioids. But it's really the proliferation of the pills, and Americans as a whole are the most medicated society in the world. That's the driver of what we're seeing."


One survey of Minnesota sheriffs showed that an estimated 30 percent of inmates across the state are suffering from mental illness. But the true number is difficult to gauge, said St. Louis County Jail Administrator Robyn Wojciechowski.

"It is a significant number," she said. "Whether it's related to their case or not, there are a lot of people who currently have or had a chemical dependency issue, and there is a significant number that appear to have mental health issues, sometimes serious and persistent. So when you have someone struggling with depression, is it because of the drugs or is it because they are trying to self-medicate? That makes it hard to get solid statistics. And some just don't want to talk about it at all."

'Numbers game'

As the problem grew, it started taking a toll on the St. Louis County Jail and its staff. Total bookings have nearly doubled since the Haines Road facility opened, up to 5,642 last year.

Inmates also started to stay longer, most of them in the pretrial phase and unable to afford bail as their cases became stalled in the court system, which saw its own increase in case filings. By 2011, the average length of stay hit 20 days.

The high population coupled with longer stays created logistical challenges for the county, Litman said. The St. Louis County Jail, while physically capable of holding nearly 200 people, is divided into units based on sex and security levels, and also must maintain open beds for new bookings.

"A bed's not a bed's not a bed," said Captain Mike Richards, head of security at the jail. "You might have three beds but they're all male and I need female. It's a numbers game."


That means the jail's true operational capacity is about 176. At times, that has resulted in the county housing up to 135 inmates in other jails - across the border in Wisconsin's Douglas County but also throughout Minnesota in Aitkin, Benton, Carver, Crow Wing, Mille Lacs, Morrison, Pine, Washington and Wright counties.

"It can be a difficult balancing act just to find beds available in other jails and coordinate how to get people there and back," Richards said.

And that's a burden on taxpayers, Litman said. Records reviewed by the News Tribune show that the county has paid other jurisdictions more than $16 million since 2001 to house its inmates.

That doesn't include the transportation and staffing costs involved. (The sheriff's office requires a transportation division, regardless, as the county maintains two courthouses and temporary lock-up facilities in Virginia and Hibbing.)

Litman said there is merit to an argument that the county would be better served by housing those inmates locally, keeping jobs in St. Louis County. The distance creates challenges for family members and attorneys to make visits.

But overall, St. Louis County has been seeing a decline in the number of inmates shipped out. At one point in March, Richards said, it dropped to eight. The busy summer months, however, drove it back closer to 50.

"Over the last year, we've had numbers that are really good in terms of inmates we house out in other counties," Litman said. "So we could build a 50- or 60-bed addition unit that isn't occupied but still has to be staffed. I don't think that's a good investment."

St. Louis County Jail correction officers Paula Linne (right) and Paul Mickelson.

Regional problem

St. Louis County isn't alone. Jail issues are apparent across the region.

A December 2017 study by the Arrowhead Regional Development Commission found that jail bookings went up 16.5 percent from 2012 to 2016 in the seven-county region of Northeastern Minnesota. Female bookings increased by 24.3 percent over the same time.

While St. Louis County works to extend the lifetime of its jail, and keep it at its current size, several of its neighborhoods are exploring significant overhauls to their jail facilities.

Carlton County is currently reviewing a study commissioned to examine a replacement for its worn and overcrowded 48-bed facility constructed in 1979. Like St. Louis, the county has been outsourcing inmates to other facilities.

The Itasca County Jail, a 35-year-old facility with 107 beds, has been deemed deficient by the Minnesota Department of Corrections, which gave it a "sunset date" of 2021, should significant renovations not be made.

Cook County, which operates only a temporary lock-up and sends its few inmates to neighboring Lake County, last month commissioned an architect to begin schematic designs for conversation to a full jail at the Grand Marais courthouse. The decision came after a recent study showing significant cost savings in keeping inmates in-county.


Long-stay challenges

Litman gets regular reports on the status of every inmate in his custody. There's one number in particular he said he focuses on.

"We want to keep our average length of stay down; that's the big number in a jail," he said. "You need to have that turnover and that churn, where you've got people coming into the jail and through either bail bond, pretrial release or final court disposition they're moving out quickly."

By 2011, inmates were staying an average of 20 days - and the jail's average daily population and the county's jail budget soared to record highs. But by 2017, they had succeeded in bringing the stay down to an average of less than 14 days.

Most inmates will come and go rather quickly, but Litman said one of the biggest challenges is the long-stay inmates - those who are charged with serious offenses, can't afford bail and get bogged down in court procedures, keeping them in pretrial status for months or even years.

Benjamin David Lundquist is currently Litman's longest-held inmate, having been arrested Jan. 19, 2017. He has been in local custody for 690 days - one day longer than Donald Trump has been president.

Charged with randomly killing Joel Gangness at a Hibbing apartment building, Lundquist's case has been prolonged due to multiple mental health evaluations and, more recently, an unsuccessful motion to suppress incriminating statements he made to investigators. A trial date still has not been scheduled.

Aaron Demetrius Humphreys spent nearly two full years in local custody after his arrest in the fatal shooting of Eric Burns at the Bedrock Bar in October 2016. His case saw two mistrials before he was ultimately acquitted of murder by a jury.

By the time Humphreys went to prison on a related firearm violation, well over half of his in-custody requirement had been fulfilled by credit from his jail stay.

The February 2017 shooting death of University of Minnesota Duluth student William Grahek posed another challenge, with the five suspects arrested. Just last week, Noah Anthony Charles King was sent to prison for life after his recent first-degree murder conviction. The final defendant, Deandre Demetrius Davenport, is currently on trial.

"In a year where we've got a lot of crimes - murders, attempted murders, really high-level offenses - 10 people can really skew my statistics," Wojciechowski said. "Other people might come in today and get out tomorrow, but in a murder trial you might have people tying up a bed for 2 ½ years."

Treatment solutions

While communities have historically operated on the philosophy that jail is a safer place than the streets for those who are struggling, Lew said that is not necessarily the case. The reality, he said, is that people are not going to treatment in jail and they often come out in worse shape.

"We need to ensure that the sheriff isn't our best mental health and chemical dependency provider," Lew said. "We can't incarcerate our way to a solution."

A consistent struggle has been getting people into treatment. Even though many are ready and willing to make that change, those who work in the system say a prolonged wait period often sends people back to the streets and ultimately relapse, or additional crimes.

"We have people trying to get into treatment and we're being told it's going to be eight weeks out," said 6th Judicial District Chief Judge Sally Tarnowski, who also presides over the South St. Louis County Mental Health Court. "That's incredible."

Corrections officer Bill Plachta checks each jail cell at a minimum of once every 30 minutes.

Some solutions are in the works.

Last year, the Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment opened a special unit for short-term opioid overdose recovery at its Duluth Detoxification Center. The six-bed unit, made possible through a state grant, provides full assessments and stabilization for clients before giving them a referral to a longer-term treatment program.

For those who remain in the St. Louis County Jail, efforts are also being made to speed up treatment services. A few years ago, agencies came together to establish what is known as Team 25 - an initiative that speeds up court-ordered Rule 25 chemical dependency assessments for inmates.

In the past, officials said, it could often take several weeks for an in-custody defendant to receive the assessment due to the caseload and priority of social workers. Now, a full-time social worker is stationed at the jail, completing the work in days.

"Instead of 45 days of wait time, we can turn this over in three days," Wojciechowski said. "It streamlines the process and gets them back to court, so it really cuts down on unnecessary jail days."

Arrest alternatives

The predicament has caused St. Louis County's 16 local law enforcement agencies to reassess arrest practices.

"It's been my opinion that there's good decisions being made as to who is being put in jail," Litman said. "We don't put people in jail just because we're mad at them or because we're being punitive. It's for two reasons: they're a danger to themselves or others and to ensure that they make their next court appearance. That's who should be in jail."

Tusken, who runs the county's largest sworn police force, said today's practices stand in stark contrast to when he started in the early 1990s.

The St. Louis County Jail intake area.

"You were going to the mental health unit, you were going to detox or you were going to jail," he said. "There wasn't a sizeable toolbox for us."

The introduction of tickets for minor criminal offenses was an innovative approach, he said. Arrests are still mandatory for major offenses and some specific crimes, such as domestic assault, but officers now are given discretion on lesser offenses.

"We're being pretty judicious and responsible in identifying who needs to be in jail and who doesn't," Tusken said. "That's evolved over my career. Jail isn't a one-stop shop where everyone has to go."

Today, police aren't necessarily making an arrest of every person with a low-level warrant. A recent check of St. Louis County records shows about 1,800 people with pending misdemeanor warrants.

Tusken said the cases are often so old that people have forgotten or never knew that they had the warrant; a simple warning can be enough to get them back to court.

The county courthouses operate regular warrant walk-in times, allowing most people an opportunity to resolve their case or set a new court date without making a trip to jail. Special warrant-workout days also have become regular events at the Damiano Center and other community gathering places.

"It becomes a really positive experience," Lew said. "We've helped clear warrants from as far away as Chicago, Iowa, Arizona, Alabama. Just think of the reduction in turmoil and pain for a client to be arrested in a different state and be transported back here, and the public cost."



Coming Monday

The News Tribune examines some alternatives to incarceration that local officials are exploring and chronicles how one Duluth woman's trip to jail provided the wake-up call she needed to turn her life around.

Related Topics: IN DEPTHPOLICE
Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or
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