I. Chief Public Defender
The Sixth Judicial District covering Carlton, Cook, Lake and St. Louis counties stretches 11,000 square miles — the second largest district in Minnesota. The vast landscape can fit the states of Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island, with room to spare.
The chief public defender here is Dan Lew, a son of Chinese immigrants who grew up in New York City. In the early 1990s, he moved to “Murderapolis” — a gallows humored nicknamed given to Minneapolis after suffering 27.1 murders per 100,000 people, a rate nearly 70 percent higher than New York’s rate of 16 per 100,000. He would earn his law degree from Hamline University, before working as a prosecutor with the Minneapolis City Attorney’s Office and a law clerk for Hennepin County Judge Tony Leung, the first Asian-American judge in the state. He eventually jumped the legal aisle and began a career as a public defender in Duluth. In 2014, Lew was named to his current position. He became the first Asian American to serve as lead public defender in the state and only the third to hold the position since it was created more than five decades ago.
Lew lives in St. Louis County, the 6,860 square mile rectangular behemoth of timber and taconite — the largest county in Minnesota. He spends his free time in a cafe in the county seat of Duluth, the port city of Lake Superior. It is here where he recently sat down with the Mesabi Daily News and considered his role as a “holistic public defender” who seeks to better help clients during the pre-trial and post-sentencing phases of court cases to identify chemical dependency and mental health issues, housing troubles and needs for employment, food and transportation. He sees the success of treatment courts — specifically the five drug and DWI courts in his district — as proof that the legal philosophy is more beneficial to people and the community than perpetuating the revolving door of mass incarceration.
“The treatment court is a new approach and it’s helping people meet their needs when working at its best,” Lew said. “If those needs aren’t met, we’ll see a client for life. Our goal is to put ourselves out of business.”
Lew praised the drug and DWI courts in Duluth and the Range Hybrid court in Virginia taking on non-violent offenders with chemical dependency issues as forward thinking. But he breaks from judges and prosecutors when defining “high risk and high-need participants” not by their “criminogenic risk” — basically, a person’s potential to reoffend — using assessment and screening tools, but rather referring to the severity of their charges. He wants to see courts take on some people accused of violent crimes. “I’m not interested in treatment courts only taking on low-level offenders because those people do fine on regular probation,” he said. “I’m more interested in taking on high-stakes cases because the rewards are huge.”
Lew continued, “We’ve tried prison. We’ve tried jail. Let’s try something different. Treatment courts are our most effective probation tools to improve lives. Let’s try something so we don’t have to have another person hurt.”
A study from the Pew Charitable Trusts found that Minnesota’s crime rate dropped 24 percent from 2006 to 2016. However, the state’s prison population increased 1 percent compared to the national prison rate’s 11 percent dip during the same time frame.
A 55 percent jump in felony charges was considered a significant factor in the uptick, including new mandatory-minimum sentences for people convicted of sexual assault, tougher penalties for felons caught with illegally possessing firearms and the creation of the felony-level DWI charge, according to the University of Minnesota’s Robina Institue of Criminal Law and Justice.
Despite having one of the lowest prison incarceration rates at 47th in the U.S., the state ranks fifth in percentage of residents on supervised release. The state is no different than most across the nation reporting that prison parolees often get dumped on county jails. In recent years, the Arrowhead Regional Development Commission recently found that jail bookings in its seven counties in northern Minnesota increased 16.5 percent from 2012 to 2016.
Earlier this year, the Minnesota Department of Corrections reported a total adult prison population of 9,479 men and women, 17.8 percent of whom were incarcerated on drug offenses. Out of the total population, 4.6 percent were committed through St. Louis County.
During the 2019 legislative session, lawmakers recited numbers from the Public Safety Committee showing that 60 percent of prison inmates were locked up for technical violations of old crimes and 85 percent of people in the criminal justice system have chemical dependency issues.
Multiple attorneys and legal experts interviewed for this series noted the state’s decision three years ago to strengthen sentencing guidelines for drug dealers while easing penalties on first-time offenders has unintentionally strained jails. While some described the move as a political compromise — the first restructuring of state drug laws in 27 years — others parroted a statement from State Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, the chair of the Senate judiciary committee, who celebrated the new format that “treats addicts like addicts instead of hardened criminals” and could save more than 600 prison beds. Still, sheriffs and jail administrators find themselves battling the problem of taking on additional people accused of drug crimes while trying to improve their immediate overcrowding issues.
A short drive from Lew’s cafe spot is the St. Louis County Jail set on 26-acres between Arrowhead and Swan Lake roads in Duluth since 1995. A $13.2 million, 84,000 square foot facility designed to house a maximum of 192 pre-trial and sentenced inmates. It incarcerates people from all jurisdictions within the county and houses fugitives from other counties and states, as well as prisoners from the U.S. Marshall’s office.
With a 2019 operating budget of $11.5 million, the jail provides food, clothing, bedding and indoor recreational facilities for inmates. There are substance abuse groups and educational and religious programs and medical treatment available from a licensed physician and nursing staff. Essentially, the jail is a small city. For comparison, the city of Chisholm reported $13 million in expenditures last year.
Steering the concrete boat is Robyn Wojciechowski, a longtime county employee who began her career as a corrections counselor in the 1920s-styled old jail in Duluth before becoming the jail administrator at the current facility on Haines Road in 2009. Under the general direction of St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman, Wojiechowski is responsible for the operations and programs at the jail and oversees happenings in the Hibbing and Virginia 72-hour lockups that can hold a total of 20 inmates on the Iron Range.
As Wojiechowski wrote in an email to the MDN, the “statutory purpose of the jail is to provide for the safekeeping of prisoners remanded to the custody of the County Sheriff.”
Over the phone, she expounded some, saying, “incarcerating is expensive and it is necessary for some people.” She added: “By no means am I a softie. We have spots in the jail if someone doesn’t want to cooperate. But we strive to preserve the dignity of the inmates.”
According to Wojciechowski, the jail booked 2,542 people from January to the end of May. The midyear figure is on track to meet previous reports of 5,000-6,000 bookings annually, roughly 3 percent of the county’s entire population.
So far, 78.7 percent of the bookings are men and 22.3 percent are women. About 64 percent are white, 18 percent are Native American or Alaska Native, 16 percent black, 0.75 percent white with Hispanic origin, 0.67 percent Asian or Pacific Islander and .39 percent of others reporting as not self-identifying race.
The highest charges include 1,383 felonies, 544 gross misdemeanors and 608 misdemeanors, with the jail housing people who rack up multiple offenses ranging from probation violation to first-degree homicide.
County jails are meant to incarcerate people accused of crimes or convicted for up to one year. Being sentenced to a year and one day means prison. About 75 percent of the jail population here is on pre-trial detention. That statistic matches up with national figures from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics finding that 65 percent of inmates in city and county jails are in pretrial phase of their cases. There are people expected to exit the jail after several days and then others like accused Christmas Day killer Jerome Dionte Spann or alleged Mesabi Trail Murder suspects Bailey Bodell French, Anthony Emerson Howson and Deshon Israel Bonnell, all from Hibbing, who may sit in cells for longer periods of time while awaiting court proceedings and the potential of a prison sentencing.
“The most misunderstood thing about the jail is the thought that our jail is full of individuals that held on ‘low level crimes,’” Wojciechowski wrote in an email. “Anyone who eventually is sentenced to prison — has spent their pretrial time in a county jail. The community seems surprised when they review the on-line population roster and see the level of felony crimes that make up the greatest number of individuals in jail.”
The data is abundant But some of the most important figures to consider in all the number-crunching during the first six months of the year include the average daily population at 181 inmates and the average length of stay at 13.8 days. And of course the cost: $131 per inmate per day.
Last month, Litman visited with the MDN in his office in the St. Louis Courthouse near downtown Duluth and reported 191 remanded inmates: 170 in Duluth, 12 in Virginia and nine in Hibbing. Since the jails need “swing space,” or room for extra bookings or disturbances, there were another 19 people jailed in Douglas and Superior counties in Wisconsin and Minnesota facilities in Pine, Benton, Mille Lacs and Aitkin counties.
Wojciechowski later explained that the jail best operates when filling 168 of the 192 beds. She recalled the difficulties of having to transfer 120 inmates about a decade ago due to overcrowding to other jails in-state or in nearby Wisconsin.
“Jail overcrowding isn’t just a jail issue,” Wojciechowski said. “It’s a criminal justice issue. What can we do to make the system run more smoothly? Quite frankly, we have little control of what happens in the courtroom.”
In 1995, the newly located St. Louis County Jail reported a daily average population of 83.60 inmates and an average length of stay of 16.26 days. By 2002, the jail’s numbers rose to 187.95 and 19.92, respectively. The county spent $424,210 to house inmates elsewhere.
At the time, now retired Sixth Judicial District Judge Carol Person and District Judge James Florey, who now sits on Minnesota’s Court of Appeals, were among those who helped open the county’s first drug court in Duluth. It was created in part to reduce the “increasing cost to the county and judicial system due to recidivism, and assisting people in breaking the cycle of addiction that kept them coming back to the court system,” Florey later wrote.
In 2003, Litman, the son of a Sixth Judicial District Judge and Olympic curling qualifier turned deputy and investigator, took the reins of the sheriff’s office. He soon called on the National Institution of Corrections to figure out how to tackle the problems of a jam-packed jail system and its high costs.
The NIC recommended expanding the jail. But he refused.
Litman believed that a bigger jail would only equal more inmates. “I wanted to use the limited resources we had at our disposal to the best of our abilities,” he told the MDN. He figured going to a standard jail does not necessarily help someone’s addiction issues or their cash flow to be productive in the community once released. His was playing long ball to cut the feedback loop. So, he worked work with corrections and law enforcement officials to buff up in-house chemical dependency treatment options as well as supervised release initiatives and diversion programs.
His was a firm stance in the face of authorities reporting large amounts of methamphetamine in cities across Minnesota. At the height of meth use, in 2003, newly formed drug task forces in the state found 140 clandestine labs, where meth was being made from pseudoephedrine, a decongestant found in Sudafed. But in 2005, Congress passed the Combat Methamphetamine Act, which put the drug behind pharmacy counters and helped cut the number to less than 30 over the past few years.
In 2006, the Range-based drug court was established to include participants from both the Virginia and Hibbing jurisdictions. During this time, law enforcement from across the state were focused on the outcries over national and statewide opioid crisis and seized only 68 pounds of meth. The next year, the jail housed its highest mark with an average of 252 people who stayed an average of 18.67 days here or at another jail. Out of county housing 80-100 people costs hit $1.4 million per year. Then in 2009, the drug court expanded and added felony DWI cases to become the Range Hybrid Treatment Court Program as known today. The hope was its birth would better help siphon off non-violent first time offenders.
Asked her opinion of treatment courts, Wojciechowski, who has a bachelor’s degree in political science with a concentration in criminal justice and also a master’s degree in counseling, told the MDN that she is “supportive of the treatment courts and supportive of some people doing time… Ultimately in the end, people are going to choose how they want to live. I’ve yet to know we’ve fixed anyone. But I know of people who took advantage of their time at the jail. Not that we did anything profound, but we treated them like community members. Firm. Fair. Consistent. I tell them to send me a postcard when they get out. I say, ‘don’t come back and tell me about it.’ And I’ve got some.”
It was five years ago when Litman strengthened probation services by reallocating funds from his jail budget to the state probation agency to hire two probation officers in Duluth and two more on the Iron Range. They would focus on intensive pretrial supervision, especially for people with chemical dependency issues.
Meanwhile, drug cartels in Mexico managed to sidestep U.S. laws restricting pseudoephedrine and bought ingredients from China. The cartels made meth in super labs and trafficked it across the U.S.-Mexico border. Depending on the drug distribution routes, meth would be broken down, hidden and transported in commercial and passenger vehicles to the Midwest and into Minneapolis and St. Paul, then brought into Duluth and cities on the Iron Range.
In 2018, Brian Maquart, the state’s Department of Public Safety’s drug and gang task force coordinator announced the seizure of 1,145 pounds of meth statewide. He later told the MDN that “meth is still the number one drug of choice in Minnesota” and that “this has to be a community engaged fight if we want to turn it around.” His words rang true for Litman, who more recently said that “well over 50 percent of our jail population has chemical dependency and mental health issues.” “[The drug task forces] have been arguably aggressive and rightfully so because we have a drug problem,” he added, explaining that he sees the combination of law enforcement efforts and intensive probation services and initiatives like treatment courts as the most effective way to curb the drug problem from all angles.
Litman’s beliefs have paid off somewhat. Last year, the jail reported an average daily population of 203.53 people who stayed slightly more than 15.47 days in a stretch.
Litman and Wojciechowski do support the county treatment courts. “Each time I attend a graduation it’s a moving experience and remarkable to see the success,” the sheriff said. “It’s resource intensive but studies show it saves lives and ultimately money and saves people from spending time in jails.”
Still, the jail administrator offered her opinion that treatment courts could focus on attracting inmates pre-adjudication to set them up for success. “The time to catch someone is when they first come to jail and they want to make changes. Not six months later when they’re watching Maury Povich on TV.”
Still, she believes that some people might just need a timeout in jail. “Practicing life in the community is different than life in the jail. When stressed out in the jail, you can’t go out and buy a 12-pack. When stressed in the community, you have choices to make. People can be great inmates, but they’re not ready to be someone’s neighbor.”
V. County Attorney
Up on the Iron Range, St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin sat down with the MDN saying he too earned his law degree from Hamline University and was invited to become a county prosecutor in Duluth in 1978. He prosecuted for nine years then briefly worked in private practice as a civil litigator before joining the county again and eventually running and winning the county attorney election in 2010.
From his wide-ranging experience prosecuting cases in Hibbing and Virginia — misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor DWIs and domestic assaults and felony cocaine possession and distribution cases — he believes that “alcohol is still the most problematic drug that we have.”
Like Litman, the county attorney has a historical knowledge of the evolution of drugs in northeastern Minnesota: hashish in the 1970s and meth and heroin in the 1980s. Nowadays, there is fentanyl. He sees a solution in making use of all resources whether that means working with federal agencies to crack down on drug traffickers or the Duluth-based Lake Superior Drug and Gang Task Force to bust regional dealers. Meanwhile he backs efforts from the Range Hybrid court. But he admits it took some time for him to get to reach that final opinion.
Rubin recalled the beginning stages of the Range Hybrid court, a time when he and one-time fellow prosecutor Judge Gary Pagliaccetti “were hesitant because we thought we had been doing the right thing by aggressively prosecuting alcohol and drug cases.” He continued: “So did law enforcement. So did the public. But we soon learned maybe there’s a better way to do it.”
Today, Rubin is “wholeheartedly in support” of the treatment courts, but does butt heads with Lew when considering whether to allow people accused of severe crimes to join the treatment court program. “I still don’t think it’s appropriate for dealers.” A wolf in the hen house sort of understanding.
Rubin acknowledges the benefits of helping someone get clean and sober rather than incarceration, but he does point out that treatment should be combined with therapy. “Sobriety is not the antithesis of addiction,” he said. “The antithesis of addiction is engagement in a positive environment.”
A guitarist who enjoys R.E.M. and Eddie Vedder and John Prine, Rubin said he is “not a proponent of the government being in your life.” But it is complicated for him. “We are the sole entity responsible to make sure the public is safe and the people are being treated fairly in the criminal justice system,” he said. “But the criminal justice system is not the answer to everyone’s problems. We’ve become the surrogate parents for people with addictions.”
So, where does the county attorney stand on jail expansion? That question seems simple on the surface, but there is a lot at stake financially, logistical and politically for everyone who decides to answer. Rubin offers that he does “love what the sheriff does” and he “doesn’t know if we need to expand the jail in Duluth” but he added that “we could use a facility on the Iron Range.” Not just a jail. Maybe a one-stop shop for probation and treatment options.
For now, he backs Litman’s ramping up “intensive pretrial release program which has relieved pressure on the jail,” feels like “we need to add more probation officers” and concludes that the treatment courts work best when “they act like a super probation.”
Moving into the future, he envisions mainstreaming the admirable parts of the Range Hybrid court: “Specialty courts are designed in my opinion to be incubators. Let’s take that and apply to the general population. In the next phase, I’d like to see us taking what’s working and offering that to more people on probation.”