From the County Manager Column from Oct. 12, 2021

Guest column: Safety and Justice 2022-23 proposed budget

This week’s guest column from Deputy County Manager Scott Williams highlights the 2022-23 proposed budget for Safety and Justice that was presented to the board of commissioners on Sept. 14. This is the fourth in our series of articles highlighting the proposed budgets for each of our service teams. – Ryan

I’m grateful for the opportunity to share more about the 2022-23 proposed budget for Safety and Justice. Our presentation to the board highlighted the elected offices of County Attorney and Sheriff, and Emergency Communications, Emergency Management & Homeland Security, and Medical Examiner. The presentation also included information about the support we provide for the functions of the Second Judicial District Court.

Watch the Sept. 14 board presentation

Topline snapshot

The Safety and Justice proposed budget begins on page 208 of the budget book. We’re proposing a total budget of $142 million for 2022 and $143.5 million for 2023. Our proposed budget includes funding to expand pre-trial diversion options; one-time funding for initiatives to increase capacity to respond to civil commitments, manage a backlog of jury trial cases, increase data analysis capacity to support child support services, civil commitment and child protection, fund a supervisor to support victim/witness advocate and post-conviction justice initiatives; and a reallocation of existing funds to support wage theft investigations and data privacy and compliance needs. We’re also proposing sustainability investments for the Emergency Communications department to reduce the department’s use of the Emergency Communications fund balance to fund the operating budget, as well as to reinstate contributions to the CAD (computer-aided dispatch) equipment replacement fund.

Areas of focus

Our areas of focus closely align with many of the county’s strategic priorities, including: Aligning Justice System Outcomes with Community ValuesAdvancing Racial and Health Equity and Shared Community PowerAdvancing a Holistic Approach to Strengthen Families; and Resilience: Building Capacity to Respond, Adapt and Thrive Under Changing Conditions.

Innovation, reform and transformation will continue in our service team despite significant cuts that are necessary to meet our budget. We have restorative justice circlesbail reform, mental health co-responders, child welfare co-responders, pre-charge diversion, pretrial diversion, treatment courts, community input into charging decisions, the Start by Believing initiative, reducing criminal fines and fees, warrant resolutionbody-worn cameras, mental health and wellness in our detention and correctional facilities, and Transforming Systems Together—this is just the short list.

We are seeing systems leaders and community leaders coming together and engaging authentically in a manner that reflects the following shared values:

  • Reducing racial inequities in our justice system.
  • Less incarceration and more community-based solutions.
  • Restorative practices that emphasize accountability to the community versus accountability to the state.
  • A person-centered approach rather than a caseload to be processed. 
  • Recognizing past harm caused by our systems.
  • Enlisting community in co-designing system changes.

Not all reform efforts and initiatives show up as specific budget items since they involve changing the way we do our work or reallocating existing resources. One notable exception is additional funding for diversion. Previously, pretrial diversion was funded out of a contract administered by Community Corrections. Going forward, diversion services will be funded by a contract managed by the County Attorney’s office and their base budget has been increased by $800,000 to reflect this change. This is a strong statement about our commitment to creating alternatives to a criminal record and incarceration.

Sometimes, reform is not about something new, but instead about something you are going to stop doing. I lift up as an example the announcement by County Attorney Choi on declining charges that arise from pretextual traffic stops. I stand with him in our collective determination to change practices that have increased racial inequities throughout our justice system.

Five years ago, we started looking for ways to include public health and social services interventions in responding to 911 calls: it was one of the most transformative things we’ve done in public safety. We began with direct transfers of some calls to the mental health crisis response team. There continues to be increased interest in responses to emergency calls that augment a law enforcement-only response, most notably with Saint Paul’s Community First Public Safety Commission. Deputy County Manager of Health and Wellness Kathy Hedin and I have worked with leaders from both Emergency Communications and Social Services to anticipate some of the recommendations from these community conversations. Results of those efforts this year include:

  • Social workers sitting along with 911 call-takers on the job.
  • Two social workers going through our 911 telecommunicator classroom training. 
  • Ideas for new approaches in responding to certain types of 911 calls that don’t require a law enforcement or medical response but have an urgent need for social services or public health interventions.
  • Safety and Justice working with Health and Wellness and Policy & Planning to present the board with a plan to move this work forward in collaboration with Saint Paul, other cities and community.

This initiative is not reflected in the current budget proposal because it is still under development, but we will remain focused on this as we continue our transformational work in 2022 and 2023.

I would like to thank our budget leads and Budget Analyst Todd Toupal for their hard work in preparing this budget; and especially thank our former Controller, Serge Kovalchuk, for his leadership and guidance in preparing this budget (Serge recently left Ramsey County to return to the Seattle area). We continue to challenge our longstanding assumptions about how services should be delivered and to reallocate staff and resources in different ways. We must also balance a reduction in expenditures with the need to continue dedicating time and resources to justice reform efforts to prevent them from stalling. This year’s budget process was challenging, but we owe it to our residents , – many of whom have been hit by the economic crisis – to retain our strategic vision while adapting our resources to meet these times.

-Scott Williams