The recent arrest of a sexual predator for one of the most infamous “stranger-danger” cases in America put Minnesota in the national news. Yet, Minnesota has long been a state of great interest to PROTECT for its outrageous laws that allow probation for criminals who rape their own children. In this first Minnesota Sunlight Report, we took a closer look at the state’s criminal sentencing and child protection system, and what we found was more shocking than we expected. At a time when Americans from across the political spectrum are calling for criminal justice reform, Minnesota’s dangerous state of justice cries out for action.
In a 2015 report, the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission conducted an analysis of sentencing in cases of criminal sexual conduct (CSC) during 2014. It found that of all victims of these crimes, 80% are minors. It also revealed that prosecutions for all CSC crimes have decreased 44% over the past two decades.
We reviewed 6,231 cases of CSC 1-4 from 2001-2014, where the victim was a minor and the perpetrator was an adult. We found that 90% of victims were female and 40% were under the age of 13. Only 4% of perpetrators were strangers, with nearly one quarter identified as parents or guardians.
An alarming 65% of adults convicted of sexually assaulting children in Minnesota are sentenced to no prison time at all. Most are sentenced to probation, typically with short visits to the local jail, which the sentencing commission includes in its “incarceration rates.” After a review of how this came to be, we conclude that judges who routinely give child predators probation have not “gone rogue,” they are usually following the spirit and letter of Minnesota law.
At the root of Minnesota’s weak sentencing for sexual violence are three factors. First, the legislature established statutory penalties of up to 30 years for rape and sexual assault, but declined to establish any minimum prison terms. The legislature then delegated power to determine sentencing to an 11-member, appointed commission, with disastrous results. Finally, the legislature enacted a shocking and unique “stay” (which we term the Minnesota Incest Loophole) that allows judges to give preferential sentencing to adults who rape their own family members, if it is deemed to be in the “best interest” of the child or the “family unit.”
We discuss the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission, originally created by the legislature to develop “advisory” guidelines for judges. Higher courts have ruled that it is the Commission’s guidelines—rather than the statutory penalties themselves—that largely bind judges in their sentencing. Those guidelines call for probation for child sexual exploitation and many sexual assault crimes and are at the very heart of Minnesota’s outrageously weak sentencing.
This report contains tables showing sentencing patterns of specific judges on CSC and child sexual exploitation crimes. We explain the care that should be taken in drawing conclusions from data like this, but discuss the fact that “all accountability is local.” When citizens hear that their child protection or criminal justice systems as a whole are failing, they tend to grow cynical. Only when performance is localized and specific do citizens have the impetus and information they need to take action.
Perhaps the most shocking and unexpected revelation in this report is that Minnesota — traditionally thought of as a progressive state—has essentially decriminalized trafficking in video and images of children being raped, tortured and sexually abused (“child pornography”).
Despite a decade of work on the issue of child exploitation—including authoring numerous pieces of federal and state legislation and working closely with law enforcement and prosecutors across the United States—we know of no other state in the union with sentencing as weak as Minnesota’s for child sexual exploitation.
Minnesota judges impose sentences of probation for possession and distribution of child abuse imagery in a stunning 90% of all cases, rendering efforts by the state’s heroic Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force almost useless unless prosecutions can be referred federally. Even when an offender is classified as a “registered predatory offender,” there is only a 62% chance he will do prison time for possession of child rape images.
This report also takes a brief look at Minnesota’s child protection system, pointing to several issues deserving of legislative scrutiny. According to the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS), over 70% of all reports from the public of child abuse and neglect are screened-out and never investigated. We found that 53% of sexual abuse reports are similarly screened-out.
We examine low substantiation rates of child abuse reports and discuss how a lack of law enforcement collaboration and proper tracking of cases can contribute to problems gathering evidence for action by both child protective services and prosecutors. We also look at potentially harmful DHS abuse classification regarding “mental injury” in the context of divorce and custody battles. We applaud DHS for creating an innovative Internet “dashboard” for citizens, and we recommend improvements to the information collected and published.
This report makes 19 recommendations for action by the Minnesota legislature.
We hope that this report arms Minnesota citizens with the information they need to understand serious criminal justice reform issues affecting children and to advocate for protection of the state’s most vulnerable children.