by JEN BURRIS
and SARAH SQUIRES
In the last decade, Winona County has seen a massive spike in serious felony crimes. Between 2001 and 2011, the number of felony cases prosecuted rose by more than 20 percent, and officials say that trend has continued.
“We’re seeing more complex, serious crimes in terms of both the assaults and drug use,” said Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman.
In 2001, 54 percent of felony cases involved substance offenses or "person" crimes — offenses that typically involve violence or physical harm toward another person. Those two types of felonies rose to 67 percent by 2011.
The complexity of these cases has increased for a number of reasons, including a rise in synthetic drug use, substance addiction, and untreated mental health issues, Sonneman explained. The cost of these crimes — both in tangible taxpayer dollars and in intangible societal loss — have also sky-rocketed over the past decade. The cost to taxpayers includes things such as the cost of prosecution, jail, and foster or other care for children removed from homes; the intangible costs are broken families and unsafe streets.
According to Sonneman, it costs taxpayers $42,000 per year to jail a typical offender; the county spends more than $2 million annually on the jail.
Since 2001, there has been an increase in not only the number of felony crimes, but also the type of felony crimes. In 2001, only 33 percent of cases were felony crimes; that number rose to 56 percent by 2011.
Drug and victim crimes have increased nearly 15 percent. The total cases opened in Winona County were broken down into four categories in 2001 and again in 2011: civil, family, juvenile, and criminal. Criminal cases also increased nearly 15 percent over that time.
By 2011, synthetic drugs began spreading through Winona and the surrounding areas. Many of those crimes don’t show up in the data, explained Sonneman, because prosecutors did not always have a law with which to charge a synthetic drug offender.
“Some states haven’t criminalized synthetic drugs,” Sonneman said. “You can buy it at the gas station.”
By mid-2011, Minnesota had passed a law against the possession or sale of synthetic drugs such as "plant food" and "bath salts," but Sonneman explained that those cases can be difficult to prosecute.
Inconsistency in synthetic drug laws across the country lead some users to believe it’s not illegal, said Sonneman. Synthetic drugs have also led to increased medical costs due to adverse reaction to the drugs; during the spring of 2011, Winona Health treated an average of six synthetic drug overdose cases a week.
Sonneman believes that the slow recovery from the recession has added increased poverty and possible untreated mental illness to the reasons for the spike in both substance abuse crimes and serious felonies.
Not only does the stigma attached to mental health issues need to be removed, but insurance that covers mental health problems should be more readily available to those in need, Sonneman argued. “We have a lot of health care for physical medical problems,” and the system should address mental health with the same commitment, she said.
Winona County hopes it has found a solution to help address crimes linked to addiction through a newly implemented drug court. The court is an intense form of probation that focuses on accountability with compassion, Sonneman said.
“People need mental health and/or substance abuse treatment, and providing that helps break the cycle of repeat offenders,” Sonneman explained. Rather than spending millions to jail nonviolent offenders who suffer from serious problems with addiction, the drug court process provides participants with highly-structured addiction treatment, and consequences for those who continue to use.
Winona County has also recently implemented a "Pre-trial Services" program that helps ensure that minor offenders who can't afford bail funds are not filling up expensive county jail beds. The county has budgeted $230,000 annually to pay the cost of sending county inmates to other facilities when all of the jail beds are full at the Winona County jail, and leaders hope the implementation of pre-trial services programs will help cut that expense. A juvenile diversion program at the courthouse has also been refined and improved in recent years.
Sonneman hopes to create other problem-solving courts similar to those created in metro areas. The Twin Cities have other courts, including: mental health courts, domestic violence courts, veteran’s courts, and DWI courts. Those diversion-style court systems aim to address the root causes of crimes to help lower recidivism rates and help turn offenders into contributing members of society.
Sonneman noted that Winona would like to start a veteran’s mentoring program, as veteran situations are unique. Veterans who have seen the trauma of war and are struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other issues can’t just be plopped in a drug court, she said.
“There needs to be a spot to address individual issues and challenges that they have from coming back from war,” Sonneman added.
Sonneman hopes that implementing these programs will help the community as a whole.
“Most people who go to prison come back into the community after being released, and wouldn’t you rather have them in a better place? Rehabilitated, in a sense?” Sonneman asked.