During the last two years, public safety was a top issue at the Minnesota Legislature, where conversation centered mainly on police accountability measures after the killings of George Floyd and Daunte Wright.
Public safety again figures to be top of mind in St. Paul when the Legislature convenes on Jan. 31, but this time with a new focus: violent crime. Republican and Democratic state lawmakers say they will roll out a host of plans aimed at reducing crimes like carjackings and robberies that have plagued the Twin Cities metro area over the past year.
Lawmakers in both major parties often argue public safety should not be politicized. And both say they expect to work to find common ground on policy to address crime. At the same time, crime is expected to be a potent campaign issue later this year, a situation that could fuel a rancorous and partisan debate at the Capitol. The House is controlled by Democrats while the Senate is held by Republicans, and both legislative chambers will be up for grabs in November elections.
The first glimpse of what that debate might look like came this week. On Thursday, Republicans told reporters they will aim to stifle Minnesota’s Sentencing Guidelines Commission, as well as judges and liberal prosecutors in Hennepin and Ramsey counties for actions and policies they view as letting people who have committed crimes off too early or too easily.
“The Sentencing Guidelines Commission is representative of a DFL, Democrat agenda to put criminals before victims,” said Sen. Warren Limmer, a Maple Grove Republican who chairs the Senate’s Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee. “We’re very concerned about this radical ideology.”
Democrats, particularly from the Twin Cities suburbs, have also been outspoken about crime in recent weeks, though they haven’t criticized prosecutors and Gov. Tim Walz’s sentencing commission in the same way. Rep. Cedrick Frazier, a New Hope DFLer and vice chair of the House’s Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Committee, said in December that lawmakers can and should be able to address both crime and police reform. “We can talk about the real uptick in crime in the communities,” Frazier said. “That’s a real thing. People are impacted by that.”
The GOP approach to public safety
Crime has always been discussed at the Capitol, and Republicans in particular have criticized Democrats since 2020 over what they saw as an inadequate response to arson and looting in the aftermath of the Floyd murder. The GOP also hammered Democrats at the Capitol and on the campaign trail in 2020 for the push by some activists and DFLers to defund or dismantle police (though no such policies had been proposed by Democratic legislators).
But crime has risen to the top of the fold as officials report a near-record number of murders in Minneapolis and a wave of carjackings, gun violence and other crimes in the metro area. And at the Republican news conference Thursday, Limmer gave a rough outline for what the Senate will focus on in the upcoming legislative session.
That agenda includes examining laws “for loopholes and sentences that don’t make sense or that allow criminals just a slap on the wrist, such as for carjacking and robbery.” Limmer also said Republicans would “shed light” on decisions by county attorneys and judges to let out repeat offenders or not prosecute them. And he said the GOP would try to “rein in” Walz appointees on the Sentencing Guidelines Commission, potentially by requiring Senate confirmation for the positions.
The 11-member commission, which sets standards for criminal sentences given by judges, has drawn criticism from Republicans over a recent plan that could shorten sentences for people who commit a crime when they are on probation, supervised release or in custody. The state’s criminal history point system for determining sentences has an extra penalty for when people commit offenses when they’re in supervision, and supporters of the plan questioned why that should lead to longer sentences. They also argue the criteria impacts mostly people charged with less serious offenses, and say longer sentences don’t necessarily reduce crime.
Limmer, however, said “the last thing we need to do right now is to have lighter punishments.”
The commission on Thursday postponed a vote they had scheduled for the proposal.
The GOP also criticized the commission for a 2020 decision to cap probation at five years for people convicted of crimes.
Republicans have also taken aim at Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman and Ramsey County Attorney John Choi as well as some judges for either not prosecuting certain cases or not handing out what they think should be long enough sentences. In September, Choi announced his office won’t prosecute many felony cases that stem from low-level traffic stops, arguing in part they have a disproportionate impact on people of color.
Limmer said Republicans hope to help police concerned about retention and recruiting, and said cops don’t like when prosecutors, particularly in the Twin Cities metro, don’t prosecute the “very laws the Legislature has put into the books and signed by governors.” (St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell supported Choi’s traffic-stop policy, though the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association has proposed requiring county attorneys to give data to the Legislature about felony offenses they don’t bring charges on.)
Separately on Friday, state Sen. Paul Gazelka, an East Gull Lake Republican running for governor, said he will propose legislation to toughen minimum sentences for carjacking, enforce minimum sentences for committing crimes with firearms that he said are being waived by judges and prosecutors, and offer signing bonuses for police officers, particularly in high-crime areas.
“This year it is my hope that myself and the rest of the Republicans move forward a pro-police agenda,” Gazelka said.
What Democrats hope to do to address crime
Democrats say they, too, hope to address crime in the state. Rep. Heather Edelson, an Edina DFLer elected in 2018, said on Twitter in late December that she is working with a group of suburban legislators, law enforcement and others to write new bills responding to crime.
“Public safety is probably one the most important things in my community right now and I think that’s true for a lot of suburbs,” Edelson said in an interview last week. “With the rising crime, people want to know what we’re doing to address it.”
Edelson said increasing criminal penalties alone won’t make people safer, because no matter how long you lock people up, they get out eventually. She said the criminal justice system, especially for youths, should be about rehabilitation and intervention.
Edelson said one potential measure would expand the authority of the state Department of Commerce’s Fraud Bureau — which currently has 15 officers charged with investigating insurance fraud — to help solve auto theft and carjacking crimes by helping understaffed police departments in the state. Edelson said Rep. Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids, expects to introduce a bill to add more officers to the bureau.
Another proposal would require a period of house arrest for youth who steal a vehicle before they’re released into a diversion program specific to auto theft, Edelson said. Right now, young people aren’t always booked into juvenile detention with just auto theft alone, or they might be booked and quickly released, she said. “What we’re seeing is this kind of churning of a lot of the same repeat offenders,” Edelson said.
Edelson said she also hopes to fund state grants for police departments to recruit in high schools and then hire graduates for part time work at the station while attending school for law enforcement, a program she said could help diversify the police force.
Rep. Kelly Moller, DFL-Shoreview, said she is working on a bill that would allow police to use mobile tracking devices on cars reported as stolen, an idea brought to her by the Ramsey County sheriff’s office. The technology would allow law enforcement to track a car without a dangerous high-speed chase, she said.
Last month, Frazier said he plans to carry a bill that would pay for community crime prevention programs, invest in ways to improve the intelligence gathering of police to help solve crimes and law enforcement strategies like “community policing with foot patrol.”
“So officers being embedded in the community, getting to know the community,” Frazier said. “That often comes up a lot around this whole idea that many officers don’t live in their communities. It doesn’t mean that those officers can’t get to know the community. It doesn’t mean those officers can’t build relationships. This may not be a popular thing, but there is some data that shows that when that type of policing is in place, it does deter some crime and it brings down crime rates.”
Walz hasn’t released any public safety plans yet ahead of the legislative session but he held a virtual meeting with West Metro police chiefs Friday morning.
Election year implications
Lawmakers in both parties say they’ll work across the political aisle to find common ground on public safety legislation.
Edelson said she’s made an effort to gain bipartisan support for all her legislation, and said she had just left a public safety call with Sen. Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, and the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association.
Legislators who want to make progress on the issue can’t vilify each other, Edelson said, adding she also anticipates a lot of conversations with legislators from Minneapolis and St. Paul who may have a different vision of public safety.
Limmer told reporters he expects to seek Democratic support for legislation such as Senate confirmation of Sentencing Guidelines Commission positions. “I would imagine with the backdrop of rising violent crime, and an agency that has the authority to alter criminal sentences that, they too would want to make sure that they would be in support of such a bill,” Limmer said.
Still, Edelson said moving bipartisan legislation is “going to be incredibly challenging in an election year.”
“It’s really hard to make things bipartisan where we agree on the exact public safety bill,” Edelson said. “And working with law enforcement and making sure that we’re going to get support also from community advocates, it’s complicated.”
Crime and support for police has been a central campaign theme already for Republicans who hope to take control of the Legislature and the governor’s office. Polling shows Democrats may be vulnerable on the issue, as many voters say public safety has gotten worse in the Twin Cities. Republicans also ran on public safety issues in 2020, especially in close suburban races.
At the GOP press conference, Rep. Anne Neu Brindley, a North Branch Republican and deputy minority leader, portrayed Democrats as reticent to tackle crime until legislators are faced with a tough election over the issue. Their push on the topic has nothing to do with campaigning, she said.
“Public safety is the top issue for Minnesotans right now … because again we just ended a year of record crime in the state of Minnesota,” Neu Brindley said. “Certainly we will be talking to Minnesotans about what they care about. Fortunately for us as Republicans, we align with that issue.”