The number of criminal charges filed in Kanabec County is lagging behind its usual pace as deputies have shifted priorities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Kanabec County Attorney’s Office has charged 30% fewer criminal cases in 2020 compared to the same time last year. Over the last five years, the county has typically charged it’s 200th case of the year in late May. In 2020, the 200th case wasn’t charged until mid-July.
The pace of cases charged per month slowed down in March when Minnesotans began taking drastic measures to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus (SARS‑CoV‑2).
Exactly what factors are responsible for the reduction is difficult to pinpoint but persons in law enforcement and courts suggest it’s a combination of changes in criminal behavior and a shift in priorities among law enforcement officers.
Kanabec County Sheriff Brian Smith said he noticed a sharp drop in thefts when stay-at-home practices were first implemented in Minnesota. He attributed this drop to a decrease in opportunities for theft: If everyone is staying in their homes, there is less opportunity to burglarize it.
When cases of COVID-19 began to grow in Minnesota, especially as outbreaks surfaced in areas with concentrated populations like jails and long-term care facilities, Smith directed his staff to keep jail occupancy low. To reduce the number of people in the jail itself, deputies were directed to prioritize responding to issues of “immediate public safety.” This meant deputies being lenient on issues of non-violent crime like drug possession.
“There are some things we’re less aggressive on to reduce the number of contacts and risk to our people,” said Smith.
While there are fewer people in jail, Smith said it has been a frustrating, but necessary precaution to protect inmates and his staff from an outbreak.
This shift in officer’s priorities shows when examining the number of referrals they send to the attorney’s office for charging.
From Jan. 1-Aug. 4, 2019, the sheriff’s office sent 521 referrals for charging to the attorney’s office. Over the same time period in 2020, the sheriff’s office sent only 382 referrals — 27% less than 2019.
“Obviously, these numbers are not on track,” said County Attorney Barb McFadden. “However, it is difficult to determine causation or even correlation between outside factors and the number of referrals. It seems to be fairly understood that COVID has played a significant role.”