Inside the uphill battle in St. Paul to create tougher penalties for child predators

For criminal sexual conduct (CSC) involving a child under the age of 13, data from 2007 to 2016 shows that in most Minnesota counties, offenders are being given a stay (probation) and no prison sentence 50% to 60% of the time. 

Warren Limmer

Late last year, Alpha News reported on Minnesota’s lax laws against child predators. For criminal sexual conduct (CSC) involving a child under the age of 13, data from 2007 to 2016 shows that in most Minnesota counties, offenders are being given a stay (probation) and no prison sentence 50% to 60% of the time. 

This means they served a small amount of local jail time but received no prison sentence. Anoka County gives out probation 60% of the time; In Washington County, where Woodbury is the largest city, probation is given 57% of the time; in Blue Earth County, where Mankato is the largest city, probation is given 52% of the time.

A substantial chunk of the roughly more than half of offenders who receive probation receive a type of stay called a stay of imposition, which reduces the crime to a misdemeanor. Although many concerned activists believe registration doesn’t do enough to protect children (because it’s still up to parents to find out where registered offenders are) those who receive stays of imposition aren’t even required to register as sex offenders. 

As an excuse prosecutors have claimed that CSC cases involving young children are incredibly hard to prosecute. That is true, but there’s starkly different records on these cases among county attorneys. Polk County Attorney Greg Widseth’s office gives out probation under 20% of the time, meaning over 80% receive prison sentences, when CSC involves a victim under the age of 13. Even in St. Paul’s Ramsey County, John Choi gives CSC offenders probation only about 40% of the time when there is a child victim.

And when it comes to child sex abuse imagery, there’s no such excuse. All the prosecutor needs is a tech analyst to make the case.

Minnesota has effectively decriminalized child sex abuse imagery

But Minnesota has effectively decriminalized the possession of child sexual abuse imagery. The law on this toxic material isn’t even in the criminal section of our code—it’s in the obscenity section. It’s so bad that police officers in Minnesota routinely say that if they want to put the bad guy away, they have to get the feds involved.

About 85% of predators possessing child sexual abuse imagery receive only probation, judging by data from 2007 to 2016.  In many of the larger Minnesota counties, over 90% receive probation. That data comes from an outside group, PROTECT—more on them later. But according to the Minnesota Sentencing Guideline Commission’s own report—a report which appears to have cherry-picked states to compare against Minnesota but still makes Minnesota look bad where the data is comparable—convictions of producing child sexual abuse imagery in Minnesota have resulted in probation a shocking 74% of the time.

Getting tough on these predators isn’t just policing what people look at, says Grier Weeks, a senior executive at PROTECT. The material being traded online depicts the violent abuse, torture, and rape of young children—even toddlers. The material, says Weeks, should break our hearts. It is “far worse than heroin or meth. … It’s like anthrax.” 

Certainly, all of the predators viewing this material are an active threat to the kids around them. And according to studies over 55% of these predators are also “contact offenders” with local child victims. Getting them off of the street and into prison is imperative for public safety.

The fight in St. Paul

The good people of Minnesota might think that in the face of these statistics, the Minnesota legislature would spring into action. They would be wrong. The statistics that showed Minnesota’s bad track record on sentencing (for the years 2007-2016) were compiled by PROTECT, a national child welfare organization, which spent tens of thousands of dollars to try to spark reform in Minnesota.

The push for some type of reform was increased after a Minnesota man in 2016 kidnapped a toddler his girlfriend was babysitting and, after killing his girlfriend, sexually assaulted the child. The same man had been previously caught with child abuse imagery but was only given a light form of probation.

Enter Rep. Matt Grossell (R-Clearbrook), a former law enforcement officer, who was elected to the Minnesota House in 2016 and took office January 2017—just when PROTECT was releasing their data. Grossell saw PROTECT’s data and it matched up perfectly to his own experience, and the experiences of many other law enforcement professionals that he knew, and it lit a fire under him.

He launched a series of bills over the next several years to get tougher on child predators. His initial bill, launched in 2017, probably asked for too big of a change, politically speaking, so Grossell broke it up into smaller pieces. One piece, HF 2943, introduced in 2018, sought to limit the ability to place offenders back in the home with victimized children—which happens far too often in Minnesota, according to several who spoke to Alpha News with knowledge of the matter. 

Another Grossell bill sought to keep offenders from being school bus drivers. That school bus driver background check bill, HF 88, passed the Republican-led House in 2018. So did HF 87, which would have required predators who received a stay of adjudication to register as sex offenders. 

But Grossell’s bills went nowhere in the Senate. According to several sources with knowledge of the matter, Grossell’s initial 2017 bill might have not been perfect but, “nobody in the Senate worked with him.” When Grossell’s smaller bills did pass the House in 2018, once they went to conference committee, they were taken out by Senate Judiciary Committee Chair, Warren Limmer (R-Maple Grove). All of Grossell’s bills were immediately met with strong opposition, from both the County Attorneys Association, and from Senate Republican leadership—particularly Chair Limmer.

Reservations included worries that Grossell’s bills would tie prosecutors’ hands, and limit the ability to use rehabilitation. There also appears to have been friction between Grossell and Senate Republican leadership because of Grossell’s status as an incoming House member, compared to Limmer who is a long-serving senator. 

Limmer’s bill

To his credit Sen. Limmer took action on his own, however. In 2018, Sen. Limmer and Sen. Linda Pappas (DFL-St. Paul) co-authored SF 2699. That bill would have placed some limits on placing predators back in the home with abused children (“Reunification is also not required when a parent receives a stay of adjudication pursuant to section 609.095, paragraph (b), for an offense that constitutes sexual abuse under clause (4)”); increased the maximum penalty for the first offense when it could be proved that a child under 13 was used in child sexual abuse imagery, and—most importantly—required county attorneys to report the use of stays of imposition and stays of adjudication in child sex abuse cases to the County Attorneys Association.  

This bill died in the Senate in 2018. Instead, in early 2019, Sen. Limmer authored a different bill, SF 111, which was passed unanimously by the Senate in early 2019. SF 111 dropped SF 2699’s detailed reporting requirements as to when stays are used in child sex abuse cases, and instead opted for language that simply required courts to “justif[y] in writing and on the record” when only stays of adjudication are used. 

Critics and activists say that this keeps the use of stays stuck buried in court records, instead of in a central location, which requires any concerned party to dig through court records. These critics point out that without the collection of such data as would have occurred in SF 2699, it is impossible for concerned citizens to measure prosecutorial records on these issues without conducting costly and time-consuming research—as PROTECT did for the years 2007-2016.

SF 111 also dropped the minor limit on placing predators back in the home with abused children. The only substantive change that SF 111 appears to have kept from SF 2699 was to increase the maximum allowed penalty for first-time offenders, on a variety of charges related to possessing and trading in child sex abuse imagery, when it is found that the child victim was under the age of 13.

Yet this final change left critics incredibly dissatisfied. Several activists, including PROTECT’s Grier Weeks, told Alpha News that these changes would do nothing to change the fact that almost 90% of predators trading in child sexual abuse imagery are receiving some form of probation in Minnesota. 

For example, under the old law a production crime of child sexual abuse imagery carried a maximum penalty of 10 years. Under the new law, it can carry a maximum penalty of 15 years, if the victim is under the age of 13. That doesn’t mean prosecutors and courts won’t continue to grant probation to the vast majority of these offenders, however. “It’s a meaningless change,” said an activist.

At the same time as Limmer’s SF 111 was being passed in 2019, Grossell had put forward a different bill—HF 89. The bill sought to place a mere six-month mandatory minimum on those caught possessing child abuse imagery, and a one year minimum on repeat offenders. This bill passed the House with even DFL support, but was eliminated in conference committee.

Grossell’s new 2020 bill

Continuing his fight, Rep. Grossell launched a new bill in March 2020, HF 4470. It adopts the federal criminal code’s tougher sentencing for child predators with child sexual abuse imagery—where receipt, distribution, and production all carry often serious mandatory prison time; mirrors federal penalties for production, distribution, receipt, and possession of child sexual abuse imagery; creates a new crime of “Receipt,” with the same penalties as Dissemination, adopting the federal standard; adds “accessing with intent to view” to the crime of Possession, to close a potential loophole; and increases the allowable penalty for possession of child sexual abuse imagery when the victim is under the age of 13, adopting the standard from federal law. 

Yet Rep. Grossell was unable to get a hearing in the House Public Safety Committee, chaired by Rep. Carlos Mariani (DFL-St. Paul). And Grossell has received no response from Sen. Limmer, the Republican chair of the applicable committee in the Senate.

Grossell’s bill has four co-sponsors in the House: Paul Novotny (R-Elk River), also a law enforcement officer; Glenn Gruenhagen (R-Glencoe); Chris Swedzinski (R-Ghent); and John Poston (R-Lake Shore). Grossell’s bill may have one Senate Republican co-sponsor, Bill Ingebrigtsen (R-Alexandria), though the bill appears to have not been entered into the “hopper” and received an official number in the Senate.

Grossell searched for a House DFL co-sponsor and has so-far been unable to find anybody.

Admittedly, COVID-19 has moved everything else aside, but several who follow the goings-on at the state capitol have noted that there are plenty of non-coronavirus related matters being inserted into bills—just not this.

Alpha News reached out to Sen. Limmer in early 2020, well-before the coronavirus pandemic and several days before session was set to begin. After initial conversations with a staffer, the staffer ceased communicating and Alpha News was never able to reach Sen. Limmer for his side of the story.

The primary questions Alpha News sought to pose to Sen. Limmer were as follows: ‘Do you think probation for roughly 85% of predators with child sexual abuse imagery is too high?’ ‘Do you think your bill—SF 111—fully addresses this issue; if not, what are the roadblocks to passing tougher legislation?’ And finally, ‘would you consider legislation that disallowed the use of stays when predators possessed material depicting the torture and abuse of a pre-pubescent child?’ 

Alpha News also reached out to Rep. Mariani and Sen. Ingebrigtsen and received no reply.

Willis Krumholz
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Willis L. Krumholz is a fellow at Defense Priorities. He holds a JD and MBA degree from the University of St. Thomas, and works in the financial services industry. The views expressed are those of the author only. You can follow Willis on Twitter @WillKrumholz.