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Why tiny Polk County sends so many people to prison

Polk is Minnesota’s 34th most populous county, but the rate it sends people to prison is the highest in the state.

aerial photo of crookston
For every 10,000 Polk County residents, 50 people were admitted to prison in 2014.

If you’re planning to commit a crime in Minnesota, you might want to steer clear of Polk County.

This county of 32,000, which hugs the Red River on the North Dakota border, is sparsely populated and largely agricultural, save for East Grand Forks, Crookston and a handful of other small cities set between soybean, wheat and sugar beet fields.

Yet in 2014 it sent more people to prison, per capita, than any other county in Minnesota, a county-by-county analysis of National Corrections Reporting Program data by the New York Times and Fordham University found. That year, the most recent for which data are available, prison admission rates in northwestern Minnesota’s Polk County stick out across the upper Midwest, more closely resembling some of the counties that form a prison belt across the U.S., from Indiana to Kentucky, Missouri Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Texas, than it does most of its neighbors.

Minnesota county prison admission rates, 2014
With 50 prison admissions per 10,000 residents, Polk County in northwestern Minnesota stands out among Minnesota counties, and, indeed, the entire upper Midwest. Authorities there point to a high rate of drug crime to explain the high rate. But drug problems are not unique to Polk County. More information about the New York Times/Fordham data can be found here.
Source: National Corrections Reporting Program, compiled by Josh Keller and Adam Pearce of the New York Times, with assistance from John Pfaff of Fordham University.

For every 10,000 Polk County residents, 50 people were admitted to prison in 2014, an increase from 22 per 10,000 residents in 2006 and 39 per 10,000 residents in 2013, among the highest in Minnesota both years.

The high prison admissions rate in Polk stands in sharp contrast to lower rates in nearby counties and the Twin Cities: In 2014, 12 per 10,000 residents in Hennepin County went to prison and 19 per 10,000 residents in Ramsey did. Neither rate increased by more than 3 per 10,000 people from 2006.

Why is Polk County sending so many people to prison?

The drug epidemic

Ask Polk County officials what’s behind the high rate of imprisonment, and they’ll likely have an answer for you: drugs.

To some extent, the data bear that out. While for the most part crime and arrest rates were stable between 2006 and 2014 in Polk County, drug crimes are a big exception. Drug crimes went from a rate of 38.6 per 10,000 residents in 2006 to 61.9 per 10,000 residents in 2014. Drug-related arrest rates, likewise, more than doubled, from 25 per 10,000 residents in 2006 to 55 per 10,000 people in 2014.

Part I crimes and drug crimes in Polk County, 2006-14
In Polk County, the rate of Part I crimes — major, often violent crimes like homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, motor vehicle theft, larceny-theft and arson — has fluctuated from year to year but remained more or less consistent. The rate of drug crimes, however, has risen in recent years.
Source: Minnesota Department of Public Safety

That rise in drug crime coincides with a rise in Polk County’s prison admission rate. The number of prison admissions was stable between 2010 and 2013, but saw a sharp, statistically significant jump in 2014, according to John Pfaff, a Fordham law professor who compiled the data, from about 39 per 10,000 people to 50, with a substantial jump in admissions due to drug-related crimes. (Because access to the database Pfaff uses is highly controlled, he wasn’t able to break down the numbers further.)

Polk County is in a corner of the state hard hit by the opioid epidemic. But it’s not just Polk County that’s seen an uptick in crimes and arrests related to drugs. Neighboring counties have seen a rash of drug problems, too.

Beltrami County, home to Bemidji, also has high drug crime and arrest rates. But in 2014, it had a prison admission rate of 32 per 10,000 residents — higher than the Twin Cities’, but not as high as Polk County.

Up the Red River in Clay County, home of Moorhead and a countywide population of 61,000, drug arrests ticked up noticeably between 2013 and 2014, from a rate of 28 per 10,000 residents to 40 per 10,000 residents. But prison admissions increased by about 2.5 per 10,000 residents, to about 22 per 10,000 residents, in that time, a fraction of the jump Polk County saw.

Drug arrests per 10,000 residents in Polk and neighboring counties, 2006-14
Counties that neighbor Polk, like Beltrami, and counties with similar populations and cities, like Clay have also seen an increase in their rates of drug arrests. But they haven’t imprisoned those offenders at the rate Polk has.
Source: Minnesota Department of Public Safety

Stiffer penalties

Last month, the Polk County Attorney’s Office filed paperwork to charge three men accused of trafficking pills containing fentanyl, a synthetic opioid several times more potent than heroin, with a punishment harsher than the state’s recommendations call for.

Benjamin Gottberg, 19, Robert Powell, 20, and Cody Stengl, 19, were arrested by local drug task force authorities in March and charged with first-degree conspiracy to commit controlled substance crime, the Grand Forks Herald reported. The Polk County Attorney’s Office argued that since the crime the three allegedly committed constitutes a major controlled substance abuse offense, the pills were mislabeled, resulted in serious bodily harm to at least one person who overdosed on them, and because of the involvement of three or more people, the trio should face stiffer penalties than the typical sentence outlined by the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission, the Herald reported.

Such a departure from the guidelines is not as unusual in Polk County as it is in others.

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In Minnesota, how felony offenders are punished depends on where they fall on the Sentencing Guideline Commission’s grid. One axis on this grid is the severity of the crime, while the other is a number that represents a person’s criminal history — in general, people with more run-ins with the law receive harsher sentences.

In theory, the sentencing guidelines bring uniformity to criminal sentencing in Minnesota’s 87 counties and 10 judicial districts. But there’s some room for discretion on the part of prosecutors and judges built into the system, too. While sentencing guidelines are followed in the vast majority of cases, courts are allowed to impose a softer or harsher sentences “when substantial and compelling aggravating or mitigating factors are present.” In some counties, departures are used more frequently than others.

In Polk County, 14 percent of felony drug offenders between 2006 and 2015 received “aggravated dispositional departures” — usually prison instead of the probation called for in the sentencing guidelines. In Beltrami County and Clay counties, 6 percent and 8 percent did, respectively. Statewide, less than 9 percent of felony drug offenders for whom the sentencing guidelines prescribe probation receive prison.

Aggravated dispositional departures for drug felonies, 2006-2015
Generally, aggravated dispositional departures indicate an offender for whom the sentencing guidelines recommends probation is committed to prison.
Source: Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission

This can happen for many reasons: at the request of a defendant who doesn’t want to serve out a long probation period, as part of a plea deal, as a way to resolve multiple charges or because the prosecutor has pursued a tougher sentence, among others. To be convicted of an aggravated sentence, a higher standard of proof, outlined in the sentencing guidelines, must be met.

The total number of aggravated dispositional departures in Polk County is relatively small, said Kelly Lyn Mitchell, the executive director of the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice and the former executive director of the Sentencing Guidelines Commission, but she was surprised by the rate of such departures.

“It does tend to indicate that there’s maybe a little bit of a cultural difference going on within that county and that their norm might be higher on the scale than the norm is in other counties,” she said.

Kip Fontaine, assistant public defender for the Ninth Judicial District, which covers 17 counties in northern Minnesota, including Polk, says he sees evidence of a different norm. He’s noticed what seems to be a disproportionate number of third-degree charges for drug possession in a school zone or park. A person, say, found to be driving through one of these areas with drugs on them would, in most counties, be charged with this crime in the fifth-degree, a lesser charge, Fontaine said.

Not necessarily in Polk. According to the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission, of 83 people with criminal history scores of zero through three sentenced with third-degree possession in a school zone or park in Minnesota between 2011 and 2015, 36 — nearly half — were in Polk County. The county with the next highest number was Mahnomen County, with five, followed by St. Louis (Duluth area) and Olmsted (Rochester) counties, with four. Hennepin County had one and Ramsey County had none.

The fact that Polk County has so many of these third-degree charges seems to indicate officials there use the statute more aggressively, Fontaine said.

Andrew Larson, the executive director of Tri-County Community Corrections, the government agency that provides probation and detention services in Polk, Red Lake and Norman counties, said he senses a difference in philosophy in Polk County, too.

“The Polk County Attorney’s Office is just more aggressive in their prosecution than perhaps what the other counties are, and it’s literally that simple. It’s not a matter of one being right or the other being wrong, it’s just a difference,” he said.

In a state with sentencing guidelines like Minnesota, Pfaff said, higher prison admission rates are likely to be prosecutor, not judge-driven. But judges can reject departures from sentences proposed by prosecutors.

The Minnesota Judicial Branch declined to make Polk County judges available for comment for this story. “Each sentencing decision is made by applying the individual facts of the case to the recommendations of the state’s sentencing guidelines, after first hearing from the defendant, the prosecutor, and victims,” spokesman Beau Berentson said in an email.

Holding people accountable

Longtime Polk County Attorney Greg Widseth, the elected official whose office is responsible for prosecuting crimes, doesn’t deny the characterization of his office as aggressive.

“I wouldn’t … tell you that I think we’re not a tough prosecution,” Widseth said, citing lower rates of mitigated departures — people for whom the sentencing commission calls for prison who end up getting probation — in Polk County than in the state (28 percent of felony defendants got these departures in Polk County between 2006 and 2015 compared to 34 percent statewide).

But, he says, there are a couple factors at play that don’t appear in the data.

First, he said the recent increase in drug problems is alarming. These days, Widseth said his office seems to be working on a drug complaint every business day — an uptick from before.

Another reason Polk County might have high prison admissions relative to its population’s size, several interviewees said, is geography. Technically, the Red River and a state line separate East Grand Forks, the biggest city in Polk County, from Grand Forks, North Dakota, whose population is larger than all of Polk County. But the river is easily traversed by bridge, so the population of Polk County is bigger than it appears when you include the many people who cross into it from North Dakota on a daily basis, some of whom commit crimes.

But that same logic should apply to Clay County, whose largest city, Moorhead, is divided from the much larger Fargo, North Dakota by the same Red River. But in Clay County, the prison admissions rate in 2014 was less than half of that in Polk.

Widseth simply says the prosecutor’s office charges what law enforcement brings to them, which comes from thorough investigation.

“I try to hold people accountable for their conduct,” Widseth said. “Sometimes that might be perceived as being aggressive, (but) there always seems to be two sides to that coin. We might charge out a burglary offense where someone breaks into a house, and it might be seen as — depending on the circumstances — as us charging heavily. A lot of times, if you talk to the other side of that, i.e. the people whose house was broken into, when we’re resolving cases (they) don’t seem to feel we’re aggressive enough.”

Divergence on drug crime

Polk County may be symptomatic of a national phenomenon: Across the country, rural and urban counties have increasingly diverged with respect to the way they handle drug crimes.

“What you see in Polk County and Minnesota as a whole seems to be consistent with the national story,” Pfaff said. “Whatever slowdown in incarceration rates is taking place seems to be urban … there’s a national divergence with bigger counties becoming seemingly less punitive and smaller counties becoming more punitive.”

Beginning in the 1970s, strict national War on Drugs policies prescribed locking drug offenders up in order to stem the tide of drug epidemics that swept the nation. Between 1974 and 2014, the U.S. prison population increased nearly 600 percent, while the population as a whole increased just 51 percent, according to figures from the Sentencing Project.

As prisons became overcrowded and research showed locking people up wasn’t necessarily the most effective way to reduce crime or prevent recidivism, attitudes in parts of the U.S. have softened, and corrections programs in some places have turned their attention toward handling addiction more like a public health issue, offering prison diversion and treatment programs.

“The narrative about how we're getting so lenient — there's huge variation, and some places are very much doubling down,” said Michelle Phelps, a professor who studies criminal justice issues the University of Minnesota.

That pattern is loosely evident in the dispositional departure rates for drug crimes across Twin Cities versus Greater Minnesota counties. For the most part, rural counties stick to the sentencing guidelines, while metro counties are more likely to depart downward from them. Some rural areas impose stricter sentences for drug crimes than metro areas (in some rural counties, very small crime numbers distort departure rates).

Asked whether a person is likely to receive a stiffer sentence for the same drug crime in Polk County than they would in other counties, Fontaine simply said, “The short answer is yes.”