The number of domestic abusers and harassers convicted of felonies in Minnesota has risen dramatically over the past decade — from 229 in 2003 to nearly 1,500 in 2013.
And more of the guilty are going to prison.
In 2013, Minnesota judges sentenced 315 defendants to prison for domestic abuse or violation of a no-contact order, compared to 44 offenders a decade earlier. The average prison sentence was two years. Data kept by the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission document the trend.
Dramatic changes in domestic violence laws and sharper work on the part of police, prosecutors and victims advocates have fueled the change.
“We’ve gotten changes in the law on the books. We have done immense training for law enforcement, advocates and prosecutors,” said Safia Khan, a program manager for criminal justice system advocacy with the Minnesota Coalition of Battered Women.
“Definitely, people are stepping up to the plate and doing a lot of great work,” Khan said. “We have some very concrete examples of how collaboration has made a world of difference. It’s very tangible.”
Some of the changes:
• In 2006, the list of prior misdemeanor offenses that qualify for a felony charge was expanded. The back period for charges was also increased to 10 years, and a perpetrator’s crimes no longer had to have the same victim to qualify as escalating offenses.
• In 2005, domestic assault by strangulation was categorized as a felony for the first time. Before that, the crime often was charged as a misdemeanor.
• In 2007, legislators created a specific domestic abuse no-contact order (DANCO) that is issued by a judge against a defendant in a pending criminal case. They differ from other no-contract orders on the books that are issued at the petitioner’s request through the civil court process.
Brooklyn Park’s effort
Brooklyn Park is one Minnesota city that has seen a dramatic turnaround in the number of domestic violence convictions.
In 2010, only one in 10 of its domestic violence cases ended with a conviction. The other nine fell apart for a host of reasons, including hesitant and recanting victims or lack of enough evidence to prove a case.
The bottom line, said Mayor Jeff Lunde: “We just knew we weren’t getting the job done. We weren’t collecting enough evidence. We weren’t providing victims a place to go. That’s on the city.”
City leaders and police brass embarked on a series of dramatic and at times controversial changes, including replacing the city prosecutor and domestic violence advocates, dedicating two detectives to domestic violence cases and training every officer to work the cases.
Since then, Brooklyn Park’s conviction rate for domestic violence misdemeanors, which account for the vast majority of domestic assault cases, has tripled to 31 percent. The number of domestic violence felony cases charged has risen from 109 in 2010 to 145 in 2014, and the felony conviction rate hovers around 69 percent.
Brooklyn Park Deputy Chief Mark Bruley said the city hired a coordinator who shepherds domestic assault cases from the police to the prosecutor’s office and gave victims advocates office space in the police department.
Patrol officers now ask all victims a series of questions to assess the danger level they face. Officers and advocates revisit high-risk victims the day after a report to investigate further and offer services.
Before, the department had five cameras to gather evidence. Now, all 108 of its officers have iPhones they can use to photograph injuries or other evidence.
Detective Shane Husarik, who specializes in domestic assault cases, said success requires understanding the latest law changes, victims’ concerns and the cycle of abuse that makes these cases so tricky.
Face-to-face interaction with victims is critical, and worlds better than the old way of doing business — an impersonal phone call days later, law enforcers say. Those conversations usually reveal a cache of evidence that can result in conviction.
“We are giving her support, and [forming] that personal relationship so they feel like we are walking through it with them,” Bruley said.
One woman told Husarik that her ex had called her hundreds of times. Aware of newer felony stalking laws, the detective checked her phone records. “You think it’s an exaggeration until you get the phone records,” Husarik said. “He called 535 times in 30 days.”
Diligent detective work — such things as getting recordings of a suspect’s jailhouse phone calls, digging into prior offenses, interviewing neighbors and family members — is crucial to getting convictions.
“We asked the prosecutor not to settle,” Mayor Lunde said. “We wanted charges. We wanted a paper trail.”
Anoka County’s effort
To the north, Anoka County police agencies and prosecutors faced a similar reality check about a meager conviction rate in domestic violence cases. In a four-year span ending in 2011, 11 Anoka County women died as the result of domestic violence. That was more women, per capita, than anywhere else in the metro area at the time.
“There was a time where a majority of our homicides were domestic-related, intimate partners,” said Paul Young, criminal division chief at the Anoka County attorney’s office.
Then every law enforcement agency in the county started using a new lethality assessment that involved interviewing victims and assessing their safety at the scene of a call. High-scoring victims were immediately connected with advocates, and all victims are connected with advocates within a day.
“We are reaching more victims than ever before,” said Connie Moore, executive director of Alexandra House, a nonprofit women’s shelter that partners with Anoka County law enforcement agencies to provide advocacy services for victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence.
Before the lethality assessment, her agency connected with victims 64 percent of the time. Now it’s 87 percent.
High-risk felony domestic violence cases and some misdemeanors are also fast-tracked in Anoka County courts.
In felony cases, county prosecutors sometimes demand counseling or treatment as a requirement for a defendant to be released on bail instead of seeking it months later at sentencing. Defendants who participate in early counseling sometimes receive more lenient sentencing.
“We are seeing more cases resolved earlier, with better results,” Young said.