Ramsey County has added a new prosecutor and sheriff's investigator to improve sex crime probes, with the ultimate goal of charging more cases.
The two new positions were announced Tuesday when the Ramsey County Board accepted a $300,000 grant to fund them from the Minnesota Office of Justice Programs.
It's the latest effort by Ramsey County prosecutors and law enforcement officials to more effectively investigate and prosecute sex crimes, from the moment a victim first calls police through the charging phase and conviction.
"I am absolutely convinced if we put more resources into investigation — [if] we employ best practices and we do everything we can on the investigation front — that will naturally yield more prosecutions without a doubt," said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi.
Three years ago, Choi announced he intended to analyze the way that police and prosecutors handle sex assault cases and how victims are treated. Choi's office examined sex crimes in the county and found that of nearly 650 reported to police between 2013 and 2016, only 11 percent resulted in charges.
Another telltale sign: Of nine first-degree criminal sexual conduct cases that went to trial in that period, prosecutors won them all. That told Choi that perhaps his office was playing it too safe.
"We need to do better for sexual assault victims in Ramsey County — and we will," Choi said at the time.
The two positions announced this week brings the total number of new positions focused on sex crimes investigation to six in the past year.
Last year, the County Board authorized the hiring of two new sexual assault advocates for its Public Health Department. St. Paul police also added two investigators to its family and sexual violence unit, using $287,000 in forfeiture funds collected by county prosecutors.
Choi said those initial efforts are already yielding results.
"We have had increases in the amount of cases that have been presented to our office," Choi said. "I know that we have lost a trial. It's not to say we want to lose cases, but as long as we had probable cause and we believe the defendant is guilty, we should be proceeding."
Choi said that the new prosecutor, veteran Kaarin Long, will spend less time in the courtroom and more time working with police so they understand what's needed to build a successful case.
Long also will come up with ways to improve practices inside the prosecutor's office, including a better tracking system and more training around "trauma and victim-centered practices."
Ramsey County Chief Deputy David Metusalem said they filled the new sex crimes investigator position in January. "We plan on having them receive the type of training needed to become an expert," he said.
Choi compared changing the culture around rape investigations to efforts that were made a decade ago to better understand prostitution.
"It's like sex trafficking. Back in 2011, people told me how hard these cases would be. The stories of victims would be so crazy that no one would ever really believe them," said Choi, noting the subsequent string of successful sex trafficking convictions led by his office.
In 2016, Choi launched a "Start by Believing" awareness campaign, meeting with officials and students at college campuses to discuss how his office handles sex assaults.
Several Ramsey County Board members spoke in favor of the increased resources and Choi's efforts to investigate sex crimes.
"It's relevant and very important. I have been very public about my own sexual assault in the military and will continue to do that," said Ramsey County Commissioner Trista MatasCastillo, who represents St. Paul's northwestern neighborhoods and Falcon Heights.
"Every time we tell our stories, someone else has the power and strength to tell their story," she said. "When we reveal what's happening, we can actually do something about it at every level of government."