Chisago County Attorney Janet Reiter noted at the County Board of Commissioners meeting Sept. 7 that there is a lot of behind-the-scenes work that goes into ensuring the criminal justice system operates smoothly.
She and Chisago County Court Services Director Amy Chavez gave a presentation to the board about the criminal justice process and jail populations.
Reiter mentioned that the work of the courts gets highlighted by the media when sensational cases garner a lot of attention, but high-profile trials are actually a small percentage of what the courts do.
“Whether they’re held in custody or are released and are being monitored by the folks in court services, the criminal justice system relies heavily on resolving cases without a trial,” she said. “Plea negotiation is common. I recognize sometimes that has a negative connotation, but really it’s important to note that it would be virtually impossible for our criminal justice system to have a trial on every situation that brought (offenders) in before the courts.”
Reiter said the criminal justice process starts when a person is arrested for a crime. Prosecutors have up to 48 hours to charge someone via criminal complaint. If they are not charged in that timeframe, they must be released, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t be charged later, after more investigative work is conducted.
When it comes to charging someone with a crime, Reiter said county attorney offices rely heavily on the work of law enforcement, but the attorneys can make changes to charges or drop them completely, if they feel like there isn’t enough evidence to prosecute a case. She said prosecutors are looking to serve justice and prove cases beyond reasonable doubt.
The in-depth charging process is anything but arbitrary.
“There are actually 18 factors we think are significant in whether or not to charge somebody,” Reiter said.
Once a person is arrested and charged with a gross misdemeanor or a felony, which usually means they’re spending some time in county lockup, the bail evaluation process is initiated. The amount at which judges set a defendant’s bail is determined by a set of factors, Chavez explained.
“The different factors are the nature and circumstances of the offense, the weight of the evidence, family ties, employment, financial resources, character and mental condition, length of residence in the community, criminal convictions, prior history of appearing in court, prior flight or avoidance of prosecution, the victim’s safety, any other person’s safety and the community’s safety.”
Commissioner Mike Robinson inquired about the family ties portion of the bail evaluations.
Chavez explained that if a person charged with a crime has strong family ties in the area in which the crime occurred, they’re generally less likely to flee from prosecution than someone who, for example, lives out of state.
Reiter said there are numerous offenses, even some felony-level crimes, that sometimes do not warrant prison sentences. Fines and probation are instituted, and those offenders have stayed sentences “hanging over their heads,” meaning that if they violate any terms of their release they could be ordered to serve out the stayed sentence.
Reiter said judges use sentencing guideline grids when deciding what punishment is the most appropriate. Those grids take into account a person’s past criminal history and the nature of the offense. For example, a person who has no past criminal history but is convicted of first-degree aggravated robbery would serve anywhere between 41 and 57 months in prison. The average sentence for that crime is 48 months.
The criminal justice process certainly does dole out punishment, but the overall goal of the system is to reform offenders.
“Incapacitation is a key to the criminal justice system,” Reiter said, noting no-contact orders and ignition interlock for repeat drunken drivers are particularly effective tools. “We try to reduce the likelihood of a new offense.”