Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
Violent crime is uppermost in many Minnesotans' minds these days, and lawmakers are keenly aware of the need to address that in the closing weeks of the legislative session. Once again the Republican-led Senate and DFL-controlled House have produced dramatically different approaches, and once again, the answer is to take the best of both and move forward.
The Senate bill, passed earlier this week on a bipartisan vote, includes tougher penalties for violent crime, creation of a special "carjacking" crime, bonuses to recruit and retain police officers, and greater accountability on sentencing and prosecutorial decisions.
The House aims the bulk of its spending at community groups and hiring more police officers. It creates grants for juvenile crime prevention and at-risk youths, along with mental health and conflict resolution centers. It would ban solitary confinement of juveniles. House Speaker Melissa Hortman told an editorial writer that the House approach is more holistic and data-driven.
Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington, a former St. Paul police chief, testified in a hearing that "most people prefer not to have their house broken into, or have their car taken, or have themselves assaulted rather than have police catch the bad guy later on. They would rather just not have anything happen at the front end." That is, of course, what every law-abiding citizen wants. But the conditions that will achieve that goal often require a mix of approaches that include prevention, intervention and deterrence.
It is not unreasonable, given the surge of violent crime at hand, to impose greater penalties and in particular, to institute a specific carjacking crime. Carjacking has become especially alarming for its frequency and violence. Clearly this demands immediate attention yet doesn't preclude efforts to address root causes.
Efforts such as those in the House bill to empower communities with local grants for alternatives to traditional policing can be worthwhile if they also are closely monitored for effectiveness. Such grants should lay out in advance the metrics by which they will be considered successful and be prepared to offer proof of that success.
The House bill, notably, also invests in two critical areas: improved forensics and DNA testing at the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension crime lab, a statewide resource available to all police departments; and funding to allow the attorney general's office to shore up its ability to provide highly skilled attorneys for under-resourced county attorneys. The Senate bill does neither, which is shortsighted.
The Senate and House both put more money into the public defender system, underfunded for far too long. Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, who heads the Judiciary and Public Finance committee, said the $55 million in his bill would go a long way toward "the right of every citizen to have an attorney appointed." Both bills also provide needed pay increases for judges, who have been leaving or retiring at a rapid clip.
The House bill also contains important police accountability measures, including an expanded ability of the Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST) board to investigate officer wrongdoing and even revoke licenses. As Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope, said at an earlier hearing, "That is what every other licensing board currently has the ability to do. You don't have to break the law, violate the law or be charged with a crime in order to violate the public trust." Accountability measures such as that should go hand-in-hand with the bonuses that it is hoped will attract and retain the best and brightest in law enforcement.
"We need every spoke of the criminal justice wheel working together," St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell told an editorial writer. "It's not a case of either/or. Prevention and intervention are both critically important."
Axtell said the recruitment and retention bonuses are vital at a time when St. Paul is losing valued police officers to suburban districts that can afford to pay thousands more. He also supports the proposal that would expand POST board authority to revoke licenses. "It's important to keep the right officers," he said, "and even more important to keep the wrong ones from wearing the badge."
One provision that shows what can happen when both sides work together is a "Clean Slate" provision authored in the House by Rep. Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis, and backed in the Senate by Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes. Long said the proposal would automatically expunge some low-level offenses, a process now accomplished by petition, which can take years and further delay a person's full re-entry into society while also stressing an overburdened criminal justice system. The coalition behind this proposal is impressive, ranging from Catholic Charities to Americans for Prosperity to the Minnesota County Attorneys Association.
"One in four Minnesotans have some type of criminal record, and 90 percent of employers conduct background checks," Long told an editorial writer. "This can be a really significant barrier to employment for tens of thousands of Minnesotans." Despite having a powerful Senate sponsor, the proposal is not part of the Senate crime bill, but it could offer strong common ground in conference committee, where differences between the House and Senate versions will be worked out.
There is much more work to be done than will be accomplished in the next few weeks, no matter what compromises are made. In the first installment of a news series looking at juvenile justice, the Star Tribune recently offered a detailed, compelling examination of the system and the high repeat offender rates for criminal youths.
That rate of recidivism is a cry for help — and for justice. Neither should be ignored as the Legislature sorts through these complex bills.
Editorial Board members are David Banks, Jill Burcum, Scott Gillespie, Denise Johnson, Patricia Lopez, John Rash and D.J. Tice. Star Tribune Opinion staff members Maggie Kelly and Elena Neuzil also contribute, and Star Tribune Publisher and CEO Michael J. Klingensmith serves as an adviser to the board.