Rochester Area Criminal Defendants Increasingly ‘Skipping’ Court
Rochester, MN (KROC-AM News) - A top local law enforcement official is expressing frustration over what previously had been a relatively rare occurrence.
Olmsted County Sheriff Kevin Torgerson, during his regular monthly appearance this week during Rochester Today on News-Talk 1340 KROC-AM and 96.9 FM, was asked about the growing number of criminal defendants who fail to report for scheduled court hearings. Anecdotal evidence compiled by KROCNEWS.com, suggests that what had been uncommon has become relatively common in the wake of the COVID pandemic.
Sheriff Torgerson explained a number of factors are involved. Even before COVID, a concerted effort was launched to avoid taxing the Olmsted County jail's capacity by granting most non-violent offenders release without bail until their trial or resolution of their cases. After the onset of the pandemic, Minnesota's judicial and corrections systems intentionally cleared out county jails and state prisons as much as possible by releasing people being held for nonviolent offenses to lessen the risk of outbreaks in detention facilities.
Sheriff Torgerson says, despite the end of the COVID emergency and the easing of the jail capacity concerns, the judges are "really holding fast on this idea that they don't want to put people in jail." From law enforcement's perspective, Torgerson says that creates a challenge because "we're just re-arresting the same people over and over." He says it's also very frustrating for crime victims, who are left waiting for the resolution of their cases, including the payment of restitution.
Adding to the frustration, the Sheriff noted the pretrial release program was designed to keep low-level nonviolent offenders out of jail while they wait for their trials, but it has also resulted in the release, without bail, of defendants charged with second-degree assault, and those accused of serious drug crimes involving weapons. The list also includes offenders with histories of violent crimes who have been arrested for less serious offenses.
The sheriff says the "no show" situation is contributing to a rising backlog of court cases because each time a defendant fails to appear, that hearing has to be rescheduled once that person is arrested on a warrant or is contacted and promises to show up the next they are scheduled for an appearance. Torgerson says the court backlog situation is also being impacted by the decision made by the judges to abandon a dual calendar system that was made possible with the addition of another trial courtroom using federal COVID relief funding during the pandemic that offered the potential to essentially double the number of cases being processed through the system.