Every four years, Americans go to the polls and cast millions of wild guesses about the people who run their justice system. Over decades of voting, I’ve been as guilty as anyone.
We choose prosecutors and judges blindly because we’re information-starved. Who knows how they do their jobs really? Where would we even start to find out?
You’d probably want to start with prosecutors. Judges might symbolize the justice system, but they have far less power. Prosecutors decide whether and what to charge. Then they usually present plea agreements to judges, ready for sign-off.
It would also be good to start with the crimes that matter most, the ones most of us can agree represent the reason we want a justice system in the first place. Crimes like child sexual abuse and rape.
Understanding how your prosecutor handles sexual violence will tell you just about all you need to know about his or her character and competence. These are the troublesome cases, the often hard-to-prove cases, the cases with young and traumatized victims who might not make ideal witnesses.
Do prosecutors run toward sexual violence cases like brave first responders? Or do they shrink when needed most, taking the easy wins but offering expedient deals to make the rest just go away?
In 2018, the National Association to Protect Children (PROTECT) set out to uncover how county prosecutors in one state handle sexual violence cases. We chose Minnesota, where court data is good, and examined a decade of felony cases. The data paints a picture the average citizen has never been able to see, in Minnesota or in any other state.
A lot of factors matter when it comes to evaluating criminal-justice performance. First is how willing a county is to prosecute sexual assault in the first place.
Take, for example, two Minnesota counties of similar size, Sherburne and Carver. Over a decade, Sherburne, led by county attorney Kathleen Heaney, had 120 convictions for rape and sexual abuse. Carver, under county attorney Mark Metz, succesfully prosecuted at half that rate, with just 61 convictions.
Taking sexual violence seriously is about more than prosecution rates alone. Ramsey County and neighboring Anoka County prosecuted sexual assault at similar rates but with dramatically different outcomes. In Ramsey, 72% of sexual assault cases against adults brought by St. Paul prosecutor John Choi and his predecessor resulted in prison sentences. In Anoka, under prosecutor Tony Palumbo, just 33% did.
Disparities like these are seen in smaller counties, too. Over a decade, Clay and Rice Counties each had exactly 54 felony criminal sexual conduct convictions. Yet, 78% of Clay’s cases resulted in prison time, while just 33% did in Rice.
Judges do matter, of course, when it comes to sentencing. However, more often it’s a prosecutor’s charging and pleading decisions that determine whether a meaningful sentence will be imposed. Good sex-crimes prosecutors charge appropriately and are willing to go to trial. Others seem to avoid that hassle at all costs.
One way to get a quick and easy conviction without much effort is to offer stays of imposition, a type of probation that reduces charges to a misdemeanor. For victims under 13, Ramsey County used stays to reduce charges to misdemeanors just 13% of the time. In neighboring Washington County, misdemeanor stays were given in 70% of those cases.
Often, prosecutors blame weak outcomes on a desire to spare victims the trauma of court.
However, sexual exploitation crimes put a hard drive on the witness stand, rather than a vulnerable child, and are easy to prove and win. These are horrific human rights crimes, turning children into sexual commodities through traffic in video and photos of child rape. How are Minnesota counties responding?
In Washington County, under prosecutor Peter Orput, less than 3% of child sexual exploitation cases resulted in prison, and 81% of the rest had charges reduced to misdemeanors. Orput represents Minnesota’s prosecutors on the state’s Sentencing Guidelines Commission.
With the release of PROTECT’s Community Safety Tool, Minnesota is now the only state in the nation where citizens have ready access to information like this.
Here’s hoping they use it.
Grier Weeks is a senior executive with the National Association to Protect Children. PROTECT’S Minnesota Community Safety Tool can be found at protect.org/safetytool.