The election changed the politics of crime; criminal justice reformers back on the rise

By: - January 9, 2023 6:00 am

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

The November election scrambled the politics of crime in Minnesota.

Republican campaigns were hyper-focused on the issue, which followed years of rising violent crime and frequent — and at times sensationalist — media coverage.

Democrats ran the table in November anyway.   

A legislative session that many expected to focus on tougher criminal penalties and lots of money for police agencies looks much different, with criminal justice reformers again on offense. They’ll seek to rein in wayward police and look more toward prevention and root causes of crime, like extreme poverty, untreated mental illness and addiction. 

At a recent news conference, House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, cited Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope, as a leader on the issue for Democrats. 

Last session, he authored the $330 million House Public Safety Innovation Act, but Republicans and Democrats couldn’t hammer out their differences by session’s end. Confident they would take over the Legislature in the midterms, Republicans scoffed at Frazier’s proposal last year, saying it would give money to unproven programs and grow state government.

The bill included funding to recruit police officers and pay for programs Democrats say are more effective at reducing crime long term than traditional police. Frazier said they won’t stray far from that blueprint this session. 

Last week, Frazier introduced his priority bill, HF25, which includes funding for:

  • Violent crime investigation teams to reduce the big number of unsolved crimes.
  • Grants to community violence prevention and intervention programs that deal with victim services, prison re-entry, homelessness assistance, restorative justice, violence interruption and juvenile diversion.
  • Grants to help law enforcement improve responses to people having mental health crises and improve criminal investigations.  Frazier’s bill includes $10 million to upgrade technology to investigate crimes or process evidence, and $15 million annually to maintain or expand crisis response teams — social workers or mental health providers that respond to mental health calls.
  • Increased funding in 2024 and 2025 for the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension’s use-of-force investigations unit.

Frazier argued crime rates have dropped despite smaller police forces in the past year, citing alterntive programs. He said that police officers will always be needed, but more focus on prevention and root causes of crime will pay off bigger dividends and be most cost-effective.

Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, said she expects broad support for a bill like Frazier’s in the Senate DFL.

Hortman, who is a sponsor of Frazier’s bill, also said lawmakers will introduce legislation early that would give Attorney General Keith Ellison more money to help county prosecutors handle cases. Ellison was narrowly re-elected in November after Republican Jim Schultz painted him as soft on crime, even though the attorney general has little role in the prosecution of most crimes. County and city attorneys prosecute most cases, although the attorney general can help them upon request. 

Hortman said Ellison has a successful record of helping prosecute high-profile crimes in greater Minnesota — particularly in sparsely populated areas.

“I imagine that that funding will move very quickly,” she said. 

Hortman said the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension also needs more resources to process evidence.

Democrats will also push to legalize marijuana, but it’s a “very big, complicated issue,” she said.

“It is critically important that Minnesota right some of the wrongs that have been inflicted on our population because of our prohibition policy,” Hortman said.

League of Minnesota Cities lobbyist Alex Hassel said cannabis legislation is a priority for the group.

“It’s about trying to find a balance — having a robust state regulatory system while preserving local control,” she said.

Rep. Emma Greenman, DFL-Minneapolis, said restoring the voting rights of people on parole or probation will be part of an elections bill.

Lawmakers could also take action on:

  • The Clean Slate Act proposed last session, which would make it easier to get a criminal record expunged for people who qualify. 
  • Probation reform. Minnesota has the nation’s fifth highest rate of people on probation, and a bipartisan group began studying reforms in 2021. The rate of Black people on felony probation was nearly five times higher than the rate of white people in 2019; the rate for Native Americans was more than nine times higher, and the rate was 1.7 times higher for Latinos. 
  • A retroactive probation cap. Probation for most offenses is limited to five years, but it’s not retroactive. 
  • Bail reform, such as ending cash bail for nonviolent crimes, or a study on bail and the likelihood of re-offending. Frazier said this bill needs more work.
  • Additional staffing for the state’s police licensing board, which is nearing the end of a three-year process to enact new rules for conduct and licensure for police officers.

The Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, meanwhile, has other priorities, and despite the defeat of their GOP allies last year, the police lobby will still have influence at the Capitol.

Jeff Potts, executive director of the police chiefs group, said their priorities include addressing interrelated challenges: Recruitment and retention challenges statewide, and the “unsustainable spike” in police officers retiring early due to post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Local government officials are concerned about the fiscal consequences of the surge in PTSD-related retirements and workers’ compensation claims.

“We believe with a requirement of mental health services and wellness programs that a significant portion of these disability cases can be avoided,” he said. 

Potts said they also hope to work closely with lawmakers to address violent crime.

“We heard many of the candidates campaign on keeping their communities safe, so we are anxious to work closely with the House, Senate and governor to develop effective public policy that will reduce violent crime and keep all Minnesotans safe,” he said. 

The police chiefs’ legislative agenda includes:

  • Money for bonuses and higher ed scholarship programs to help recruit and retain new officers, and legislation allowing part-time officer licensure for small agencies.
  • Requiring county attorneys to report when they decide not to charge felony level offenses. “This is in response to massive violent crime increases at the hands of serious offenders who should have been in jail but were able to commit additional crimes against the public,” the police chiefs said.
  • Funding for multi-jurisdictional co-responder programs or embedded social workers. 
  • Mandating training for legislators before they could pass any use-of-force reforms, so they “better understand the situations officers find themselves in on a daily basis.”
  • Allowing police officers to be terminated without the ability to challenge the termination if it’s based “willful or intentional dishonesty, deception, or similar unethical or illegal conduct that is deemed sufficient to imperil their credibility in court testimony.”

Frazier said he agrees with the need to collect data on prosecutorial charging decisions, but he wants more than what police are seeking, which he jabbed as an effort to collect “opposition research” for political campaigns. Instead, he also wants data collection on the material underlying charging decisions — like incident reports and charging forms submitted by officers — which would give a fuller picture. The point of all the data collection, he said, would be “addressing inequities that lead to disparities.”

And Frazier said he will carry the police PTSD bill this year, working off a bill debated last year that would require police officers and firefighters to get treatment in order to get workers’ compensation benefits or apply for disability pensions.  

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs.