ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) — It’s an alarming number – more than 53,000 Twin Cities offenders are arrested and jailed in Hennepin and Ramsey Counties each year.

More than half of them arrive with serious mental health or substance abuse issues.

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“This is not about being soft on crime, this is about being smart about crime,” St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell said.

About 100 area law enforcement and criminal justice leaders met in St. Paul on Thursday to consider alternatives to incarceration. It’s being promoted nationally as a more cost effective, more successful approach to dealing with non-violent offenders.

Former New Orleans and Nashville Police Chief Ronal Serpas heads the group, Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime & Incarceration. The New York-based effort began the approach in 2015.

“When given alternatives fewer people go to jail and more people go to mental health treatment. More people get social service wrap around treatments,” Serpas said.

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Already, programs like drug and veterans courts are diverting an increasing number of offenders into treatment.  And that’s affecting jail bookings in both Hennepin and Ramsey Counties.

In the past decade, the numbers of jailed inmates in both counties have dropped between 15 and 20 percent, respectively.

“We cannot arrest and prosecute our way out of the problems we face in the criminal justice system,” Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said.

Hennepin County’s board recently approved adding more space for mental health treatment. It will add some 150 beds to the Hennepin County Workhouse, as well as 16 mental health beds to a facility at 1800 Chicago Avenue South.  County leaders are betting the approach will be less costly, and more successful in fighting crime and keeping people out of jail.

“They’re being treated by doctors and nurses and not police and prosecutors,” Freeman said.

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But it will take stronger legislative support too. Funding ways to better handle non-violent offenders than with the cold hand of the law.