Commentary: Minnesota is soft on crime and Democrats want to make it worse

The cold hard truth is that Minnesota is not catching and prosecuting criminals at rates that would deter crime.

An anti-police sign left outside the Third Precinct in May 2020. (Shutterstock)

There are not too many people in Minnesota prisons; there are too few.

Consider that in 2019 there were 12,509 reported violent crimes in Minnesota: 117 murders, 2,431 rapes, 3,081 robberies, and 6,742 aggravated assaults. In 2020 that number jumped to 15,515 (a 16%+ increase). We know that only 40% of violent crimes get reported to the police, and so actual violent crimes were 31,270 in 2019 and 38,787 in 2020.

How many of these violent criminals were arrested? In 2019, just 5,732, less than half the number of reported violent crimes, or 45% (18% of the actual number of violent crimes), and in 2020, just 5,649, or 37% (15% of the actual number of violent crimes).

When we look at prosecutions and imprisonment, the numbers get worse, considerably worse. In 2019 there were only 1,592 offenders sentenced for committing a violent crime, just 27% of arrests. Of those 1,592 sentenced for a violent crime, only 680, or 43%, received a prison sentence. And so out of the 31,270 violent crimes that occurred in 2019 only 2% of the perpetrators went to prison!

In 1993 the Department of Corrections created an “Offender Flow” which tracked outcomes for total crimes reported. There were 498,644 crimes reported, which resulted in 202,978 arrests, just 36,625 criminal cases filed for those arrests (7%), and 27,704 guilty pleas or guilty verdicts after trial. Of the 27,704 found guilty, 25,386 were returned to the community and just 2,318 were sent to prison (1/2 of 1% of total crimes, just 8% of convictions). 946 of the 2,318 sent to prison were considered “violent offenders.” There were 14,770 reported violent crimes in 1993, and so just over 6% of reported violent offenses resulted in a prison sentence. Since 40% of offenses are not reported to the police, there were 36,925 actual violent crimes in 1993, and just 2.5% resulted in prison.  The great majority of those arrested were not prosecuted for their offense: 139,999 of those arrested (68%) were either not prosecuted or had their charge reduced. So far as I have been able to determine, this “Offender Flow” has not been created for subsequent years, probably because the folks in charge don’t like what they see.

The cold hard truth is that Minnesota is not catching and prosecuting criminals at rates that would deter crime. Consider that for four-fifths of all reported felonies in Minnesota, there are no arrests. And for two-thirds of those arrests, the charge was dropped or reduced. The combination of low arrest rates and the failure of our judicial system to successfully prosecute criminals makes it difficult to incarcerate even the most obviously guilty criminals. To use the words of the criminologist Macklin Fleming, it “is a task comparable to landing a barracuda with a trout-rod and a dry-fly … it (is) a labor of Sisyphus to put a criminal in jail and keep him there.”

Those who believe Minnesota is engaging in “mass incarceration” (to use their term) should review the following cases which are by no means unique.

Carjacker Carl Stanley Williams, 37, was charged in January of this year with three felony counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct, kidnapping, and first-degree aggravated robbery. Two weeks before this last arrest he had been arrested for motor vehicle theft. He was released without being charged. He had other cases pending, including first-degree burglary of an occupied dwelling (he broke into a north Minneapolis home occupied by a mom and dad and their two kids), tampering with a motor vehicle, and indecent exposure. This career criminal has 36, yes 36, prior convictions including four felonies. Minnesota’s practice of “prison as a last resort” allowed him to remain in “community correction,” i.e. out on the street free to terrorize victim after victim.

Then there is Thomas Lenard Hunter, 27, who ran a red light in downtown Minneapolis a year ago May, resulting in the death of a pedestrian. Just a few days before the crash Hunter was charged in Stearns County with eight counts of fifth-degree assault, but he was released with no bail required. Hunter had four felony convictions since 2015 including possession of a firearm by a felon, assault on a peace officer, fleeing police, and domestic assault. In each case the felony sentence was stayed and under Minnesota’s system of “community correction” he was allowed to remain on the streets. Hunter was tried for fleeing police and assaulting a police officer and ended up getting a sentence of a whopping 13 days in jail (credited with nine days already served, and so a net 4 days), and probation for five years.

Then there is Leon Bell, 48, carjacker, who put a gun to a woman’s stomach at Rosedale Mall in February of this year. His rap sheet includes felony theft, seven burglary offenses, and auto theft. Despite having 14 prior convictions, on his 15th case the court stayed his sentence and put him on five years of probation, enabling him to be back on the street to carjack his victim at the Rosedale Mall.

The left, including the governor, the Democratic leadership in the legislature, the commissioner of corrections, the head of the Sentencing Guidelines Commission, and the American Civil Liberties Union, all believe that our Minnesota prisons are populated with a huge number of non-violent, non-career criminals who pose no threat to the community. We are engaging in “mass incarceration.” Balderdash. A majority of convicts are in Minnesota prisons because they committed a violent offense, and a goodly share of those not there for a violent offense have committed a violent offense in the past. Virtually all are repeat offenders.

The Department of Justice Survey of State Prison Inmates reflects that fully 80% of prisoners are serving a current term for a violent crime, or were previously convicted of a violent crime. Forty-five percent have three or more prior convictions, and 60% have two or more. Although 16% of those currently in Minnesota state prison are there for a drug offense, most are repeat offenders, and most have committed a violent crime in the past. We know that active criminals commit crime randomly and opportunistically. As criminologist Professor James Q. Wilson says, “nature of the present offense is not a clue to identifying a high-rate, repeat criminal (since) most street criminals do not specialize.” The crime for which a criminal is arrested is “determined by a kind of lottery.”

Can we safely let 50% of the prison population go free without any risk that the number of crimes and victims will skyrocket? The most definitive studies, including the seminal Minnesota study “Sentencing Effectiveness in the Prevention of Crime” conducted by the former Minnesota Planning Agency, have found that a convicted felon will commit an average of over 12 serious crimes every year he is on the street. These studies include one by the Rand Corporation (“Doing Crime” — 14 serious crimes a year), and Shlomo and Reuel Shinnar (10 serious crimes a year).

Minnesota Democrats own the mess in which we currently find ourselves. In 1973 under Wendell Anderson, he of the Minnesota Miracle, Minnesota enacted the Community Corrections Act, in which Minnesota legislatively adopted the “prisons don’t work” philosophy, which Minnesota courts and prosecutors had adopted as early as the first half of the ’60s. Henceforth all but the most violent and recidivist offenders would be kept close to their families and left in the community. In 1968 Karl Menninger wrote the influential book “The Crime of Punishment,” in which he argued that punishment was a brutal and inefficient relic of the past. Criminals were victims, and not, well, criminals.

Adding to the anti-prison movement are Minnesota’s sentencing guidelines. The guidelines utilize a sentencing grid, in which criminal history and seriousness of the offense are combined to dictate when a defendant should go to prison. Under this sentencing grid most felony convictions do not result in a prison sentence. In 2019 only 24% of the 17,335 felony convictions resulted in a prison sentence. Only 43% of the convictions for violent crime resulted in a prison sentence. The leniency imbedded in the guidelines is made worse: judges are permitted to deviate from the guidelines if they record a reason and Minnesota judges ignore the prison recommendation of the guidelines in almost 40% of cases.

The use of prisons plummeted after 1962, and Minnesota became what it remains today —  always close to the lowest, if not the lowest, incarceration state in the country, and close to the highest, if not the highest, probation state in the country.

In 1962 Minnesota had about 1,600 inmates in state prisons. By 1973 that number had plummeted to 1,000. Under the umbrella of “Community Corrections,” Minnesota in the ’60s and ’70s virtually abandoned juvenile detention, and the number in juvenile centers declined from 820 in 1970 to 143 in 1992, to just 50 today (despite the fact that 10,880 juveniles were arrested in 2020).

This was part of the pattern across America — release prisoners as crime skyrocketed. One would think those in charge of the criminal justice system could have seen the connection. In 1960 in the United States there were 62 prison commits per 1,000 reported violent crimes, which declined to 23 per 1,000 in 1970, not coming back up until 1990 when it rose to 62 per 1,000. There were similar numbers for the ratio of prison commits to number of arrests for violent crime. The number went from 299 per 1,000 arrests in 1960 down to 170 per 1,000 in 1970, bouncing back 30 years later to 332 per 1,000 in 1990. Once the connection between imprisonment rates and crime was recognized, prison numbers climbed dramatically, and crime declined just as dramatically. Funny that.

Minnesota’s prison population went through the same changes over time, increasing from 7,879 in 2004 to 9,188 in 2010, to 10,114 in 2015, then declining to 9,381 by YE 2019 before precipitously dropping almost 20% to 7,593 by YE 2020 (currently at 7,511). It seems that we are unfortunately headed back down the same trail we went down once before in the ’60s and ’70s.

While we were abandoning prisons in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, violent crime skyrocketed in Minnesota. In 1950 there were just 807 reported violent crimes; in 1960 there were 1,390; in 1970 the number jumped to 5,825 (almost a 300% increase in the violent crime rate); in 1980 the number rose to 9,237; in 1990 another huge jump to 12,717. Then as prison populations increased and career criminals were taken off the streets, the number leveled off — in 2010 there were 12,515 reported violent crimes, in 2020 the number climbed again to 14,589 (a year over year increase of almost 17%, which not surprisingly corresponds to the precipitous decline in our prison population that occurred in 2020).

Everyone in control is a Democrat

The Democrats are firmly in control of the mess we call the criminal justice system in Minnesota and they own our current critical and escalating situation. The Supreme Court is populated with Democrats appointed by former Gov. Mark Dayton or Gov. Tim Walz. Ditto for the Court of Appeals. Gov. Dayton appointed 112 judges to the District Court, and Gov. Walz has appointed 17.

The county prosecutors for Hennepin and Ramsey, where the majority of crime is occurring, are Democrats. Democrats own the current system where so many offenders go unprosecuted, and where so many cases are pled to a lesser offense, resulting in little to no prison or jail time. The Sentencing Guidelines Commission is also populated with a majority of Democrats. The chief justice of the Supreme Court, a Democrat nominee, appoints the three members from the judiciary. The governor appoints the remaining eight, as well as the chair. The current chair heads the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice at the University of Minnesota, whose website castigates the “high rate of incarceration” (2% is high?) and looks for “transformative change” (less use of prison).  The vice chair is a champion of probation and has spent her career in that field. The head of the Department of Corrections (who believes our prison population is twice what it should be) is also a Democrat nominee. The head of the Department of Public Safety, which houses the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, is also a Democrat appointee. And the attorney general, also a great champion of the anti-prison movement and a staunch opponent of our police, is a Democrat. Everyone in control of this system is a Democrat.

This Democrat machine wants to make our situation even worse. The leftist “close the prisons” advocacy groups insist Minnesota is engaging in “mass incarceration,” citing the fact that our imprisonment rate per 100,000 is so much higher than all the other countries on the earth. That of course is the wrong ratio — they should be comparing persons imprisoned per violent crimes committed, which produces a far different result.

Professor James Q. Wilson, still the foremost authority on crime, puts it this way: “The proper question is whether we imprison a higher fraction of those arrested, prosecuted, and convicted than do other nations.” Take Japan, which has a low ratio of persons incarcerated versus population. There aren’t many people in prison in Japan, not because they are lenient, but because they are strict. If you commit a violent crime in Japan, there is a very high likelihood you will be caught, prosecuted, convicted and incarcerated. That high likelihood of punishment keeps crime low. In Minnesota, as the above numbers show, your chance of going to prison for a violent crime are very low indeed, so low that there is no credible deterrent to crime, and voila, we have lots more crime than other countries.

The Sentencing Guidelines Commission has proposed making the guidelines even more lenient, resulting in even fewer cases where prison is the dictated outcome, by eliminating from the criminal history score whether the defendant was in custody during his offense. Fortunately there are some thoughtful members of the commission who disagree and the proposal has been tabled … for now.

The Hennepin and Ramsey county attorneys, in league with the Minnesota attorney general, are in the process of eliminating bail altogether. In January of last year, the Hennepin County attorney announced a “no bail required” policy for 19 felony offenses, including car theft. If it were not for the fact that the state Senate is in Republican hands, Democrats would have already enacted prison reduction legislation, and a whole plethora of police defunding and de-policing acts. In 2021 House Democrats introduced multiple anti-police bills, including proposals to abolish any civil or criminal immunity officers enjoy, limiting use of force, establishing a special prosecutor for use of force cases, and extending the statute of limitations for actions against peace officers. And of course in Minneapolis, where there has not been a single Republican on the council for decades, efforts to abolish the police force and transform it into a social services agency continue unabated.

The attorney general insists our Minneapolis Police Department is systemically racist. The city and the AG are currently fashioning a consent order which will certainly include racial quotas in stops, use of force, and arrests. The reality of crime and policing is quite different from the scenario Democrats paint. We know from victim reporting that African Americans are disproportionately represented in crime, and so it is understandable that force is used disproportionately against them, and that they are stopped and arrested in greater numbers than whites.

We know that clearance/arrest rates in Minnesota are very, very low (only 20% of the serious crimes reported in 2020 resulted in an arrest, down from 27% in 2019). Those rates are going to go even lower because Democrats continue to disparage our police as racist, and continue to push measures that would handcuff and intimidate them. Police are no longer proactive for fear of being called racist. They are staying in their cars, ignoring crime, and stops are down and will go down further. Police are quitting in record numbers in response to the relentless false allegations of racism. Between May 2019-May 2020, there were 36,190 stops by Minneapolis police. In the period from May 2020-May 2021, there were 17,030 stops, less than half the previous 12-month period. In the May 2021-May 2022 period, there were 11,265 stops, two-thirds of the prior year. Crime is going up as policing goes down. Carjackings year to date are at 164 versus a prior three-year average of 50, a 300% increase. Gunshot victims year to date are 156 versus the prior three-year average of 93. Shots fired calls year to date are 2,897 versus the prior three-year average of 1,741.

Real solutions

Instead of pontificating about systemic racism, and trying to close our prisons, we need to focus on real solutions to crime. First among these should be literacy. There is a proven connection between childhood illiteracy and crime — over two-thirds of children who cannot read proficiently by the end of the fourth grade end up on welfare or in prison. Today 72% of African-American third graders in Minneapolis schools are not proficient in reading i.e. they are far, far below where they need to be. This illiteracy continues through high school where in the 11th grade an astounding 93% of African Americans are not proficient in reading.

It is an injustice of the highest order that most of the African-American students graduating from Minneapolis high schools have not achieved true literacy. Yet here too Democrats (and their teachers union), who own the Minneapolis school system, stand in the way, opposing proposals for reform, like a mandatory statewide K-3 aggressive phonics-based reading program requiring every child to read by the end of the third grade before advancement.

We must not abandon prisons so long as we have high crime rates. Prisons don’t reform (40% of those released come back within three years), and their deterrent effect is weak because we catch and prosecute and imprison so few criminals. But prisons are 100% effective in incapacitating those imprisoned from committing further crimes. Unless we speak up, Minnesota will go further down the path of allowing criminals to stay on our streets, terrorizing yet even more innocent victims.


Greg Pulles

Greg Pulles is a lifelong Minnesotan and retired attorney who practiced in Minnesota for over 40 years.