Fear of random violent crime is growing in the Twin Cities. In recent weeks, residents have been attacked at various times of the day and in communities across the metro.
Some victims have been knocked down and had purses snatched, while others have been threatened at gunpoint by carjackers. Still others have been robbed while coming or going from their own garages. In one December incident, a clerk at Bryn Mawr Market in Minneapolis was pistol-whipped and shot by robbers.
Authorities have traced most of these frightening cases to teens as young as 13. And they're rightly concerned that some — even after they're tracked down and arrested — are released too soon and go on to become repeat offenders.
Recently two law enforcement groups have called on prosecutors to get tougher on crime, arguing that accountability is lacking. And they suggest changes and legislation that should be considered by the courts, lawmakers, prosecutors and the community.
In a letter to Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, the Hennepin County Chiefs of Police Association (HCCPA) asked for major changes in the way violent juvenile offenders are treated. They said they work to arrest suspects, but that the "continued trend of not charging these cases, many involving guns and illicit drugs, needs to be urgently reevaluated."
The group called for more aggressive prosecution, bail reform and an end to the use of "sign and release" warrants that allow those who have missed court dates for low-level offenses to be released rather than taken into custody. They're also asking that the criteria for sending a young offender to juvenile detention be changed so that cops won't be forced to immediately release repeat offenders.
The Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association (MCPA) sent a letter voicing similar concerns late last month to Freeman and Ramsey County Attorney John Choi. They wrote that at times county attorneys are unwilling to pursue felony cases, so police have been forced to turn to city prosecutors to pursue lesser charges. They want state legislation that would require county attorneys to provide data to the Legislature about felony-level offenses that go uncharged.
The push to get serious about juvenile crime comes amid a disturbing increase in violent crime in Minneapolis and St. Paul. With 97 homicides in 2021, Minneapolis tied its previous record, according to Star Tribune data. The city also recorded more than 650 gunshot victims. St. Paul set a new homicide record with 38 deaths. And both cities saw carjackings soar from just a handful a few years ago to over 100 in St. Paul and over 600 in Minneapolis.
Freeman said in a statement that his office is "… charging and prosecuting both juveniles and adults to the fullest extent of the law. Our practice has always been to focus our limited resources on the most violent crimes first and that is what we are doing. … We have been and will continue to work with our criminal justice partners to address the increased crime and to develop focused prevention strategies."
Choi told an editorial writer that he could support legislation that would provide transparency on prosecutorial decisions. He said changing the custody rules for juveniles is complicated because there is limited space to hold them and limitations on detaining younger teens.
Choi said his office pursues charges when there is sufficient evidence and that he has and will continue to meet with law enforcement and other stakeholders to hold violent criminals accountable.
It's notable that some research has found that stronger penalties don't deter the youngest juvenile offenders. But getting them off the streets, when justified, prevents them from becoming repeat offenders.
The Star Tribune Editorial Board has generally voiced support for policies that are more lenient for nonviolent young offenders. But there's an obvious difference between being pulled over for a broken headlight and stealing a car at gunpoint. Citizens should not have to live in fear of violent crime, and prosecutors need to be part of the solution.