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New laws, tougher sentences: How legislative Republicans want to address crime in Minnesota

While the Senate GOP bills the plan as “tough on crime” policy that will lead to a safer state, many of the proposals face opposition in the Democratic-led House, where DFLers have taken a different approach. 

State Sen. Warren Limmer
State Sen. Warren Limmer, a Maple Grove Republican who chairs the public safety committee: “Minnesota is experiencing a drastic increase in violent crime across our state, and criminals are not being held accountable for their crimes.”
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein

Since the start of Minnesota’s legislative session, one way that Republicans who control the state Senate have pledged to address public safety is by creating new categories of violent crimes and extending prison sentences for offenders.

That strategy is now reflected in an omnibus bill — which rolls dozens of proposals into a single piece of legislation — released by the Senate’s Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee last week. The bill includes at least a dozen measures that would require tougher criminal penalties and create or expand designations for at least eight crimes, ranging from a new carjacking statute to a broader anti-burglary law.

“Minnesota is experiencing a drastic increase in violent crime across our state, and criminals are not being held accountable for their crimes,” said Sen. Warren Limmer, a Maple Grove Republican who chairs the public safety committee.

While the Senate GOP bills the plan as “tough on crime” policy that will lead to a safer state, many of the proposals likely face opposition in the Democratic-led House, where DFLers have taken a different approach to crime that includes spending on police, but also community violence intervention programs and many initiatives that don’t involve law enforcement.

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House and Senate leaders will negotiate later in the session to see if they can agree on any legislation that can clear the full Legislature. But the Senate GOP’s omnibus bill still signals key priorities for the party and shows how wide the gulf is between the House and Senate’s public safety plans. 

What the bill does

The GOP’s public safety bill includes plenty of new spending from Minnesota’s $9.25 billion budget surplus. Senate Republicans proposed more than $71 million for police departments meant to help with hiring, retaining and rewarding officers, $5 million to help police buy body cameras, $3 million for youth intervention program grants and $2 million for a gunshot detection system in Ramsey County, among other initiatives.

Much of the bill is tied to new criminal violations and sentencing rules. Limmer told reporters last week that he wanted to focus on penalties for repeat offenders, carjackers, and violent crimes that involve guns. 

The bill includes several policies aimed at carjacking and fleeing police. One measure establishes carjacking as a crime — a violent carjackings would typically be charged right now as a robbery — and sets minimum sentences of between two and six years and maximum sentences of between 15 and 25 years based on details of the case. Those maximum sentences are longer than ones for robbery in similar circumstances, according to Senate researchers, and there is no mandatory minimum sentence for robbery crimes.

The omnibus plan would also increase maximum penalties for stealing a car when that vehicle was used within a week “in furtherance” of committing a violent crime. For a car valued at $5,000 or less, the maximum prison sentence would increase from five to 10 years, and for a car worth more than $5,000, the penalty would jump from 10 to 15 years.

State Sen. Julia Coleman
State Sen. Julia Coleman
The GOP proposal would create a new crime, originally proposed by Sen. Julia Coleman, R-Waconia, of fleeing a police officer while driving a car in a “culpably negligent manner” with a maximum prison term of four years. Under current law, fleeing police in a car carries a three-year maximum sentence, but there are much higher penalties when someone is injured. Coleman’s plan is aimed at situations where someone is driving recklessly and puts others in danger, but doesn’t hurt anyone. Coleman said she felt there was a gap in Minnesota law for those cases. The state would also revoke for a time the driver’s license of someone who is convicted of the fleeing offense.

Other policies in the GOP bill are aimed at repeat offenders and people who commit crimes with guns. And several policies are meant to limit the discretion of judges or prosecutors in charging or sentencing.

That includes a measure that would require a judge to impose an “aggravated durational departure” — a prison stay longer than the presumptive sentence for a crime — for adults who have committed a third felony-level violent crime and have been determined to be a danger to public safety. Right now that tougher sentence is optional. Judges would also have to impose an upward departure on a person’s sixth felony of any kind.

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Limmer has also included a measure that limits a judge from considering a sentence under minimum guidelines for someone who committed a violent crime involving a firearm or who illegally owned a gun in some circumstances. Judges already can’t go below that minimum for repeat offenders.

Significantly, the bill would limit when an incarcerated person is released under supervision. Currently, people in prison are released after two-thirds of their sentence is served, and the GOP plan would lengthen that to three-fourths of their executed sentence.

Limmer also proposed requiring county attorneys to publish information about when felony charges against someone are dismissed.

Other measures in the bill include a new crime of “organized retail theft,” which is defined in part as when a person steals retail merchandise and either sells or intends to sell it. The policy is supported by the Minnesota Grocers Association and can result in a maximum prison term ranging from two to 15 years based on the value of the stolen property and past offenses. Another proposal would expand the definition of third and fourth degree burglary under Minnesota law to include people who steal inside a public building — currently burglary is generally considered when someone enters a building they’re not allowed inside, according to Senate research.

Robert Small, executive director of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, said the omnibus bill overall isn’t unusual in the number of changes proposed by the Senate GOP. But he said it is different from past years in that there are a lot more mandatory sentencing provisions.

The sentencing laws would eventually put enough people in prison to “stretch well beyond the state’s existing bed capacity,” said Paul Schnell, Commissioner of the Department of Corrections, at a hearing in the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday.

State Sen. Scott Newman
State Sen. Scott Newman
Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said during an early March hearing that his proposal for tougher sentences for third-time violent offenders and sixth time offenders “in essence is trying to send a message both to the county attorneys and to the judges who are elected officials that they have to do more to protect the public from these violent or repeat felony offenders.”

And Newman said he does view the policy as a deterrent against committing the crimes, though Democrats have argued there isn’t evidence to prove that. Much of the legislation is backed by organizations representing law enforcement.

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Matt Gottschalk, director of public safety in the small Hennepin County city of Corcoran, testified in late February at a hearing on the bill to create a carjacking crime. Speaking on behalf of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, Gottschalk said there has been a “staggering” rise in auto thefts and violent auto robberies, and that “this bill is going to be a big part towards trying to make some progress on turning that tide back in our community’s favor.”

Why some oppose the bill

Democrats, plus some criminal justice and liberal groups, have largely criticized Republicans’ effort to establish new crimes and stricter criminal penalties because they view the proposals as ineffective or overly punitive.

Commissioner John Harrington
Commissioner John Harrington
John Harrington, commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, said in a letter to the public safety committee that “these approaches will have little or no effect on crime as we can see that there are not sufficient policing resources necessary to provide enforcement.”

And Julia Decker, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, wrote in a letter that “subjecting more Minnesotans to potential arrest, criminal charges, prosecution, and incarceration by the state runs counter to research showing that increasing incarceration has little to no impact on crime rates.”

St. Louis Park Sen. Ron Latz, the top Democrat on Limmer’s committee, said in an interview that the bill’s criminal justice policy is “all hammer.” He said it’s a broad cross-section of mandatory minimum penalties and increased punishments with an “overall tenor” of “let’s just pound the criminals.”

Over the course of the legislative session, Latz has said he doesn’t think longer sentences or new crimes are deterrents, but there is research that says the threat of being caught from police solving a crime is a deterrent. And he said the GOP omnibus bill should have more help for police investigations and other things like youth intervention programming.

State Sen. Ron Latz
State Sen. Ron Latz
Latz said new crimes or longer sentences are warranted in some cases, and he’s on board in theory with a new crime for fleeing police, like Coleman proposed, though he differs on some details and implementation. He said he has proposed increasing criminal penalties before, such as on “kingpin” drug dealers and a new crime for fraudulently buying guns for another person to escape legal requirements.

The omnibus bill includes two measures proposed by Democrats to expand criminal statutes: a proposal from Latz to broaden fourth-degree assault tied to victims who are health care workers and a plan from Sen. Karla Bigham, DFL-Cottage Grove, meant to protect attorneys, judges and corrections officers from being doxed — which, in the bill, is when someone publishes their personal information in a way that poses a threat to their safety or leads to serious bodily harm.

But Latz said he doesn’t want to see the Legislature step in to undermine the discretion of prosecutors and judges to impose harsher or lesser charges or sentences on people based on the circumstances of the crime or of the offender. “No two cases are identical,” Latz said on Tuesday. “The facts of the case differ, the circumstances of the cases differ.”

He said during a hearing that someone convicted of property damage would be treated the same as someone convicted of a violent crime under Newman’s bill. “Having a one size fits all approach just ties the hands of a judge behind his or her back,” Latz said.