Sheriff sounds alarm as Ramsey County jail population climbs




  • In US
  • 2022-09-25 10:02:00Z
  • By Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.

Inside the Ramsey County jail, there are nights that people sleep on mattresses on plastic cots because there aren't enough beds.

After clearing out many people from the jail during the coronavirus pandemic, the facility in St. Paul is back to being full, but now there are new concerns.

The Ramsey County sheriff's office, which runs the jail, told county board members that a variety of factors are at work, including:

  • A state court backlog due to the pandemic.

  • More people being held on murder or attempted murder charges.

  • More people waiting for court-ordered evaluations for mental illness.

"The care and the safety of the inmates in our jail is at risk if the population continues to grow," Sheriff Bob Fletcher told county commissioners recently.

The sheriff's office requested an additional $2 million for housing and feeding inmates next year. The jail's budget is $21.7 million this year.

County commissioners have been meeting with staff from the courts, public health, corrections and other departments about how to reduce the number of people in the jail when they're not being held for violent offenses, said Trista MatasCastillo, chair of the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners.

"At the same time, we are looking deeper at the harder-to-solve situations about mental health," she said. "There are a ton of budget implications and not easy solutions."

SHARP INCREASE IN MENTAL HEALTH EVALUATIONS

The Ramsey County Adult Detention Center is a pre-trial facility intended to hold people for a short time. The average stay is six days, but some, such as murder suspects, can be held for a year or more, said Lt. Mike Johnson, the jail's assistant superintendent. There were 36 people being held on charges of murder or attempted murder as of last week.

The average stay is 72 days for people waiting for a mental health competency evaluation, Johnson said.

"The fact is they don't belong in a jail," Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt said during a county board budget committee meeting. "They belong in mental health facilities or getting services."

Though the jail has mental health counselors, it's not intended to be a place for intensive treatment.

If a judge, prosecutor or defense attorney feels that someone charged with a crime doesn't understand their court proceedings because of mental illness or a cognitive issue, such as a traumatic brain injury, they can ask for a competency evaluation.

The number of competency evaluations ordered in Ramsey County District Court increased by 84 percent from 2020 to 2021, and the numbers this year are on track to surpass last year, according to court information.

Court rules call for competency evaluations to be completed in 60 days, but evaluators can't keep up with the caseload, said Ramsey County Chief Judge Leonardo Castro. Judges can order that people are released from jail, with conditions attached, if they aren't a flight risk or a threat to the public; otherwise, bail is set.

At least 30 people in the Ramsey County jail as of last week were waiting for competency evaluations, Johnson said.

SLEEPING ON 'BOATS'

Looking at the average daily population of the Ramsey County jail in June of various years, it was 319 in 2013; 379 in 2019; 172 during the pandemic in 2020; and 424 this June, according to the sheriff's office. The high was 473 over the summer, Johnson said.

Any time the population rises above 440, it "causes logistical problems for us," Fletcher told the county board. The jail's average daily population has been above that number since April.

When the jail surpasses 440, some inmates have to sleep on a mattress on a Stack-A-Bunk - jail staff call them "boats" because they look like small canoes. There were three people who slept on the temporary beds Tuesday night into Wednesday morning.

Though the jail has 492 beds, traditional cells have bunkbeds and the jail can't use all of them because they need to separate people by gender or risk - people with the most serious mental health or behavioral issues are held in cells without another inmate, Johnson said. They've also been quarantining people when they arrive at the jail to make sure they don't have COVID-19.

WORKING THROUGH COURT BACKLOG

Thousands of cases through Minnesota's court system were put on hold during the coronavirus pandemic. Ramsey County had a backlog of about 1,500 gross misdemeanor and felony cases, but they've been able to reduce it by about 20 percent, Castro said.

"That backlog has a significant impact on people who are involved in the justice system - whether it's the accused person, the victim's family members, community members. Their lives are on hold," Castro said. "We need and want these matters brought to conclusion."

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The judicial system in Ramsey County is coordinating with prosecutors and defense attorneys to have back-to-back hearings for less serious cases that have been lingering in the court system. Castro said the latest involved about 60 cases of people being held in the jail for non-violent offenses; however, it amounted to about 30 people because some had more than one case, Johnson said.

The next set of cases Castro said they're aiming to get moved through the court system are gross misdemeanor charges from suburban Ramsey County. There are more than 200 cases that were filed at least six months ago, Castro said.

These aren't situations of "catch and release," Castro said, but letting people have their day in court without further delays. If the cases aren't resolved through guilty pleas or dismissals, judges aim to get trials scheduled quickly.

If the courts can continue moving cases through the system, the jail can return to a population that's in the "safe range again," Reinhardt said recently.

$2M REQUEST FOR FOOD, HOUSING

County commissioners who heard from Fletcher about the jail at a budget meeting this month said they're concerned about the situation, but told the sheriff that his budget request was too late for a meaningful discussion.

Reinhardt, who chairs the budget committee, noted a letter about the budget from Chief Deputy Dave Metusalem arrived late in the afternoon the day before Fletcher's presentation and the PowerPoint presentation arrived the morning of the presentation.

"To get something this late … it's not respectful of our process nor of this county board," Reinhardt said. "… We will make full analysis of everything."

Fletcher said the information is part of ongoing discussions they've been having about the jail and they're not just beginning to deal with it. Commissioners listened to the sheriff's presentation and said they will get back to his office about the budget requests.

The sheriff's office requested $1.5 million to house inmates at other locations and that a reduction of $471,000 for 2023 food service be restored.

Because Ramsey County works in a two-year budget cycle, county commissioners aren't proposing a change to the 4.54 percent property tax levy increase for 2023 they approved last December. The budget discussions they've been having are for a supplemental budget of $785 million for next year, which they'll vote on in December.

TAX LEVY INPUT

The Ramsey County Board of Commissioners will vote Tuesday to approve the proposed maximum tax levy to finance the 2023 budget.

Residents, businesses and other stakeholders can submit budget feedback to commissioners through an online feedback form that's available at ramseycounty.us/Budget. They can also contact their commissioner directly.

A public hearing about the budget was held this month and a second one will be Nov. 28 at 6:30 p.m.

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