Hennepin County, Minn., is rolling out a project to avoid jail time for people accused of nonviolent crimes and misdemeanors, an effort that could reduce jail crowding, save money for taxpayers and reduce what are often disproportionate burdens on the poor and people of color, reports the Minneapolis Star Tribune. For the first time, individuals accused of low-level crimes, such as failing to appear in court for traffic violations, are being issued special warrants and then released by police instead of being booked into the Hennepin County jail. County court officials are also exploring major reforms to the bail system, so that more low-risk defendants accused of low-level misdemeanors can await trial at home, instead of in a jail cell at a cost of $132 per day to county taxpayers.
The reforms, which are still in their early stages but echo a larger national shift in the philosophy of crime and punishment, are expected to reduce the jail’s inmate population by up to 10 percent, potentially saving the county hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. Already, the changes have increased the number of defendants who make their court appearances and have allowed Minneapolis police to focus on more serious crimes by cutting the thousands of hours they spend transporting minor offenders to and from jail. Officials found that of the roughly 35,000 bookings last year, nearly half were for low-level misdemeanors, such as loitering, driving after a license revocation or simply missing a scheduled court appearance. Most of these offenders spend less than a day in jail, but some languish for days until a court hearing because they can’t afford to pay even a small amount of bail. The public cost of holding these defendants in jail often exceeds the amount of the unpaid fines that may have led to their arrest.