Miffed about misdemeanors

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July 23, 2002 // UPDATED 1:27 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Ellen Nigon
Ellen Nigon

"Livability" crimes such as public urination and low-level drug dealing persist Downtown; some blame an uncoordinated criminal justice system

In the grand scheme of things, individual misdemeanors are a relatively small issue Downtown; however, over time, things like public urination, panhandling and street-level drug dealing add up.

The crimes persist, and some Downtowners wonder, for example, why frequent offenders still roam the streets. The endless drip, drip, drip of livability crimes prompted Downtown neighborhood leaders, Minneapolis police and Catholic Charities to meet earlier this summer, where they decided they need more accountability from the complex criminal justice system. Some have even suggesting a McKinsey-style report, similar to the city's recent comprehensive organizational study.

"We have a major problem," said Jim Grabek, chairman of the North Loop Neighborhood Association. "We are the Downtown groups. We have a concern for the health, safety and welfare of the Downtown citizens. That encompasses a concern for everybody involved - for street crime, for the homeless, for the businesses and for the visitors to Downtown."

Thanks to the group's persistence -- and the support of the Downtown Council, a business association -- law enforcement officials, state representatives, attorneys, judges, county commissioners, city councilmembers, social service workers, businesspeople and residents met earlier this month to begin a coordinated effort against livability crimes.

Not surprisingly, solutions were not clear-cut.

Some people say police should simply arrest more of these offenders, city attorneys should prosecute more of them and judges should impose harsher sentences. But this bumps up against a taxophobic reality of soaring caseloads for judges and publicly funded lawyers, plus expensive incarceration.

Those weren't the only problems that emerged.

Technology

A hot topic was technology -- reflecting how poorly coordinated the criminal justice system is right now, and how few links exist to social-service agencies.

The police, city attorneys and counties are all using different computer systems, so it's hard to paint an offender's complete portrait.

Minneapolis police officer Craig Williams said, "We couldn't answer the simple question of what happened to this person who was arrested on such and such a date. We could only tell them on our police side. We couldn't tell them what happened on the justice side."

Judge Hopper said that the calendar of offenders he sees each day contains only their cases in Hennepin County: "It will not have the cases pending in Ramsey County or Dakota County or anywhere else in the state of Minnesota."

Understaffing

Understaffing is most apparent at the city attorney level. Joan Peterson, deputy city attorney for the criminal division, reports that city attorneys often carry four times the American Bar Association recommended caseload.

"At the [peak] caseload we had something like 2,400 cases per attorney (per year) and I think we're now down to 1,400 or 1,500 cases per attorney," said Peterson.

She said the recommended load is 400-500 cases per attorney. However, caseloads may rise if budget cuts hit the city attorney's office.

Also, few judges handle misdemeanors; Judge Hopper as the only one who hears out-of-custody arraignments, but doesn't bemoan his lot.

"By me doing this all the time, I know these people and they know me. It's very easy for them to lie their way through the system when they don't know the judge," he said. "They see me and they know that I know what's going on."

Still, Hopper said that he spends two minutes tops on each case. "We have calendars that run from 85 to 125 [cases] a morning," Hopper said.

How does he make sound judgments? "You spend a lot of time acting upon your instincts and the limited information you have," he said.

Social Service

Jodi Pfarr is a transitional housing manager for Catholic Charities' Exodus Hotel, 819 2nd Ave. S. says livability criminals are often homeless, mentally ill or chemically dependent. Thus, she said, punishing them is not enough because they'll simply re-offend.

"They need to hook up with social services [to] provide whatever is lacking," Pfarr said.

Peterson said that city attorneys don't know more than an offender's rudimentary history. "We don't know if a person is homeless. And if they can hold themselves together for five minutes for the court appearance, they don't get evaluated (for mental health issues)," she said.

Next steps

At the meeting, a McKinsey-like study was not begun, and funding is uncertain. Still, participants say, something must be done soon.

"If livability crimes are not addressed, the ramifications are property values, people not coming Downtown anymore," Grabek said.

State Rep. Wes Skoglund (DFL-62B) said based on his 26 years of lawmaking, a study would be helpful. "Lots of times, to solve problems you need a base document to begin with."

The businessperson

Kent Warden, the executive director of the Building Owner and Managers Association, knows that livability crimes have a direct impact on the health of local businesses.

"To make this an attractive work environment we need to make sure that it has both the perception and reality of safety," he said.

Warden thinks perception is important because often livability crimes don't threaten safety. However, such crimes make people feel unsafe Downtown.

Warden admits that Downtown can hold its own when attracting businesses, but that in today's competitive business market every advantage is necessary.

"It comes to what kind of an urban environment you need to be able to attract businesses to want to locate here," he said. "If they feel threatened or at least find that it's an unpleasant experience to go outside during the day, it's hard to attract people Downtown. We have to be able to offer a pleasant working environment."

The county commissioner

Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Stenglein (2nd District) admits livability crimes can be a problem Downtown.

Stenglein said, "It's pretty much the chronic people asking for money and being bullies."

But Stenglein says an independent study will not solve anything. "I don't think we need to study the problem anymore," he said. "I think the judges need to sentence [criminals] to longer sentences at the workhouse. Keep doing that until they get the message."

Stenglein's decisions shape the justice system. The county pays for the local courts, Downtown jail and Plymouth workhouse, where lesser offenders serve up to a year.

However, Stenglein does not believe tougher sentences would cost taxpayers more. Courts and prosecutors are already handling the cases, so those county costs wouldn't rise. As for workhouse costs, "We have to staff it the same way whether it's completely full or half full,"

Stenglein said.

The city attorney

Though Joan Peterson's staff struggles with caseloads and technology, she said that the system does a good job targeting two types of misdemeanor criminals.

Restorative justice/restitution programs effectively keep most first-time offenders from re-offending. Peterson also believes that her office more effectively prosecutes the most chronic misdemeanants.

"What we do with those folks is what we call relentless follow-up," Peterson said. "We have two attorneys who focus exclusively on those defendants. When they do come into court, we have someone who knows the case, who is familiar with everything."

Peterson worries most about people who are neither chronic nor new offenders. "I think that's where the community is rightfully concerned," she said.

The technology breakdown most hurts prosecutions of this middle group, she said: "They might come in on one offense and we might not know [of] other offenses.

If justice sytem computers are made to talk to each other, "we can let the judge know what the full picture is and make sure to resolve all the cases," Peterson said.

The police

While the recent public outcry over livability crimes has been loud, Downtown Command officer Craig Williams and his partner Luther Krueger say statistics actually show livability crimes are slightly down this year.

Statistics can be deceiving, especially with these crimes. "It's not an actual statistic," Williams said. "If livability crimes are up, that just means we arrest more. It may not actually mean there are more."

Krueger said victims are less likely to report livability crimes than felonies. "If you witness a livability crime and you don't report it to us, it didn't happen," he said.

Some officers complain that judges let chronic offenders off too soon so they can re-offend. Judges argue that state sentencing rules make costly jail space a greater priority for violent felons.

However, some attorneys have criticized the police for reports not detailed enough to produce a conviction. Williams doesn't disagree, but says police and prosecutors need better coordination. Police officers want to know "do I have the elements that would require this case to go through?," Williams said.

The social service provider

Perhaps a less obvious piece in the misdemeanor puzzle is social services. Jodi Pfarr of Catholic Charities says that the criminal justice system could be doing more to support

misdemeanor offenders.

Pfarr works at the Exodus Hotel, 819 2nd Ave. S., which combines a shelter with support services. According to Pfarr, livability crimes plague many of her clients because some are committing these crimes.

Pfarr believes that Catholic Charities and other social service agencies could better help people who commit misdemeanor crimes if, somewhere along the path of justice, those people were screened for homelessness or chemical dependency.

She offered the example of Manhattan's community court system.

"If I commit a [misdemeanor] crime in Manhattan I'm immediately taken to a site and I see a judge that day. I'm also assessed if there appears to be an issue," Pfarr said. "Then there's the hooking up with the social services."

(Hennepin County's drug court screens, but only for felony offenders.)

If the courts find that someone arrested for public urination is homeless, Pfarr said judges could break the cycle of repeat offenders by diversion into housing or chemical and mental health treatment.

She told a story of a homeless man who lived behind Marshall Field's, 700 Nicollet Mall, for seven years. "He'd been out on the street and mentally ill for years," Pfarr said, adding wryly, "Obviously there was no way that this gentleman, living outside, had never gone to the bathroom outside or been a public nuisance."

Through Catholic Charities, the man now lives in his own apartment and receives treatment for mental illness. Pfarr said, "Here's someone we could have gotten to a lot sooner" had he been diverted after being arrested for livability crimes.

The neighborhood residents

Jim Grabek is not timid, but when he walks from a teaching job at the University of St. Thomas to his North Loop home, he is aggressively panhandled. "I can be panhandled two or three times walking home," Grabek said.

He's not sure visitors persistently asked for money ever come back Downtown.

Loring Park's Richard Anderson says that some friends are afraid to visit him at night.

And Sheila Lynch, acknowledging that her Elliot Park neighborhood has gotten safer, sees people loitering or consuming alcohol in public. "It affects the way you live day-to-day," she said.

Each wants to fight livability crimes. "It's not crime that's personally dangerous. It's the type of crime that affects how you feel about how where you live," said Anderson, president of Citizens for a Loring Park Community.

The neighborhoods helped create the Central City Neighborhood Partnership Restorative Justice Program, which has successfuly detered some criminals through restitution. Now, neighborhood leaders say, they should go further.

Neighborhood activists approached the Downtown Council. Buisnesspeople lose customers, and can also provide crucial support and funding. Said Anderson, "It's one thing for neighborhoods to say something. We needed the Downtown Council's buy-in."

The state legislator

He doesn't represent Downtown, but Minneapolis State Representative Wes Skoglund (DFL-62B), attended the Downtown Council meeting because crime has been one of his top legislative issues.

According to Skoglund, part of the problem is that people have come to accept petty offenses in Downtown. "I think if someone were to aggressively panhandle at 50th and France, the police would deal with them immediately," he said. "There's a level of tolerance Downtown that doesn't exist at the Mall of America."

Skoglund firmly believes that better technology is another part of the solution. Since 1993, Skoglund has supported the CriMNet database system that would allow all levels of Minnesota's criminal justice system to better interact with each other.

"Right now, the police don't know if they're dealing with someone who's been arrested 10 times or he's done one dumb thing in his life," Skoglund said, adding that police, prosecutors, defense lawyers and the judge would all have such information under CriMNet.

However, deputy city attorney Joan Peterson said Minneapolis needs a better computer system before they can begin using CriMNet. "CriMNet relies on every jurisdiction being able to post their information in a useful way and [in] a certain way," Peterson said.