MANKATO — The Blue Earth County Attorney’s Office prosecuted fewer crimes last year.
But County Attorney Pat McDermott worries that might have at least partly been because crimes went unreported during the pandemic.
Court cases have continued through the pandemic but are progressing more slowly. Most hearings have moved to a virtual format and the Mankato public defender’s office has been down attorneys due to a hiring freeze. Many trials, which must be held in person, are on hold again.
The Blue Earth County Attorney’s Office charged 638 adult felony crimes and 249 gross misdemeanors in 2020, according to an annual report. That’s down from 713 felonies and 326 gross misdemeanors in 2019.
Cases involving juvenile offenders and child protection also were down. There were 311 children who were charged or referred to a diversion program in 2020, which was a drop from 599 in 2019. There were 67 cases involving parental rights terminations or children in need of protective services, down from 103. Truancy cases dropped from 100 to 53.
The county attorney said the decline in new cases likely was in part because there were fewer visitors and college students in Mankato to commit crimes. Closed bars and limited gatherings also probably helped curb some criminal behaviors, he said.
But McDermott worries some crimes such as domestic abuse and child and elder neglect went under-reported because vulnerable people were so isolated. He also suspects an under-reported uptick in online crimes as people spent more time on their electronic devices.
The 15 attorneys in the Blue Earth County Attorney’s Office, 12 attorneys in the Mankato office of the Public Defender’s Office, and judges and other officers of the court are themselves spending more time online.
Since March most court hearings have been conducted virtually. Fifth Judicial District Chief Public Defender Scott Cutcher said remote hearings are working, but they are more time consuming.
“Things are still moving, just not as quickly,” Cutcher said.
Meanwhile two defenders left the Mankato office and were not replaced due to a state hiring freeze. Attorneys and support staff were left with larger caseloads while coping with a new virtual format, Cutcher said.
“It’s a difficult job on its best day. When you throw in a pandemic, it’s even more difficult. But they’ve done fantastic,” Cutcher said of his staff.
Retired judges returned to the bench to help with arraignments to help reduce the backlog, McDermott said.
The Blue Earth County Attorney’s Office met around 90% of procedural deadlines — one of the highest rates in the 5th Judicial District, McDermott said.
“Under the circumstances, I think we’re fairing pretty well,” he said.
It’s the cases without deadlines and with defendants that aren’t in jail that are being delayed the longest, Cutcher said. He has court dates scheduled as far out as October.
A number of jury trials also have been delayed — a few involving defendants who are in jail.
Jury trials must be held in person and were suspended as the pandemic took hold. Blue Earth County District Court was picked as one of a few sites to pilot the resumption of trials and McDermott said trials went smoothly with no jurors expressing safety concerns.
Trials were put on hiatus again this winter until at least mid-March. Attorneys can request the Minnesota Supreme Court approve exceptions for defendants waiting in jail.
McDermott estimated it will take the court about a year to catch up on the backlog of pending trials. Cutcher expected it could be up to two years before court schedules are back to normal.