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Minneapolis public-private partnership finding dramatic success in reducing 'livability crimes'

Susan Segal
Susan Segal

A public-private collaboration to reduce so-called livability crimes — petty theft trespassing, indecent conduct — on the streets of downtown Minneapolis is demonstrating dramatic success.

The Downtown 100 program last year resulted in a 74 percent reduction in misdemeanor crime among 50 chronic offenders in the Downtown Improvement District, according to a report presented this month.

The idea, according to Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal, was "to come up with a more holistic approach, not just running them through the system," but rather connecting these chronic offenders with resources to reduce recidivism. "It's really an impressive effort, involving community people, law enforcement and social service agencies,'' Segal said.

Lois Regnier Conroy
Lois Regnier Conroy

Community effort paying off
"It has been a big tent. So many people in downtown have committed to this effort'' to reduce crime and the perception of crime, said Lois Regnier Conroy, lead prosecutor for the program and assistant city attorney.

Among those involved is the Downtown Improvement District, which contributed $150,000 to the effort last year and has committed the same amount for 2011.

Here are the numbers:

From April to December of 2009, 50 chronic offenders committed 334 offenses within the 120-block Downtown Improvement District. After the initiation of the Downtown 100 program in 2010, during the same months, those 50 offenders committed only 86 offenses, a 74 percent reduction, Segal explained. More here (PDF) and here (PDF).

Initially the program was aimed at targeting 100 offenders — thus the name — but funding restraints limited the program to 50 people at a time, with some "graduating" out.

Segal describes livability offenses as misdemeanors — such as low-level drug and theft offenses, trespassing, open bottle violations, public urination, indecent or disorderly conduct — and low-level felonies.

Since making downtown cleaner, greener and safer is the mission of the Downtown Improvement District, signing on to the project was an easy discussion, says Sarah Harris, chief operating officer of the organization.

"We have focused on these individuals, making it known we are watching them … but we also look at the underlying issues. In many cases we have helped house them and get them into chemical dependency or mental health treatment," with the goal of ending their unlawful behavior, Harris said.

Crime reductions spilled into areas beyond the Downtown Improvement District area, too, she said.

Funds paid for a second prosecutor, Nnamdi Okoronkwo, and a paralegal, said Regnier Conroy.

But the initiative also depends heavily on a team of people not funded by the program, including those from St. Stephen's Human Services, the Hennepin County Attorney's Office, the Minneapolis Police Department, Catholic Charities and the Salvation Army, as well as volunteers from neighborhood associations in the First Precinct and downtown residents, she said.

The offender list changes. Regnier Conroy says 74 offenders have graduated from the list, but the Minneapolis Police Department then supplies the names of new offenders.

The list is determined by statistical data — those persons who have committed numerous offenses — not demographic data. Consequently, there is no breakdown by race or ethnicity.

Further, "we haven't monetized the savings,'' Regnier Conroy said, although she cited a 2005 study showing that the 33 most prolific offenders cost $3.7 million in jail, chemical dependency, medical, mental health and housing services.  

As with the Frequent User Service Enhancement Program (FUSE) — a program that moves long-term homeless persons off the streets and into permanent, affordable housing — housing and other social services appear to provide a stabilizing force that improves behavior.

Monica Nilsson
Scott Theisen, courtesy of Greater Twin Cities United Way
Monica Nilsson

Funding can be precarious
Because The Downtown 100 is not fully funded, it depends on the continuing and voluntary services of many agencies and groups, including St. Stephen's, says Monica Nilsson director of street outreach at St. Stephen's and a board member of the Minnesota  Coalition for the Homeless.

If they run out of funding — say, financing for housing — there will be a domino effect, she said.

"Most are not necessarily violent people,'' says Nilsson, but "they are living in public, with about 85 percent homeless. Our lens is if they had housing, they would not be out in public committing so much crime,'' she said.

"It's pretty rare to see beat cops, homeless advocates and prosecutors sitting at the same table agreeing that this works,'' Nilsson said. The drop in criminal offenses would have been 80 percent, she says, except that the same "couple of guys kept getting into trouble.''

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