Recent cases suggest innocent people are paying the price for Minnesota’s soft courts

I’ve written a lot recently about the rise in violence in the Twin Cities and how the situation is likely to get worse as police resources are cut. But front line police services are only part of the state government’s apparatus for maintaining law and order. The courts are part of the equation, too. And a couple of recent stories give cause for concern.

Kare 11 reports that, on Monday, Jeffrey Morgan Groves was sentenced to nearly 26 years in prison for the sexual assault of an elderly woman in St. Louis Park last November. The details of the case are horrific, but that horror is compunded by the fact that Groves should not have been free to commit this terrible crime:

In February of 2020 KARE 11 Investigates reported a series of breaks Grove was given by judges during sentencings for a number of violent crimes that could had landed him in prison. Instead of being given prison time, as state sentencing guidelines called for, he was repeatedly given local jail sentences or probation on the promise he would remain law-abiding. 

Records uncovered by KARE 11 show Groves was convicted of felony Receiving Stolen Property in the summer of 2019. If his probation had been revoked immediately he would have gone to prison, and would have been locked up before he sexually assaulted the elderly St. Louis Park woman and led police on a chase that endangered many lives. 

Yesterday, KSTP reported on the case of Victor Childers, who is suspected of assaulting the owner of an auto body garage in south Minneapolis on August 5th.

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS checked Childers’ criminal history and found he has seven prior felony convictions, two of which are considered violent offenses, between 2009 and 2018 and was released from his latest sentence in late 2019.

Court records showed Childers spent under four years in jail, or prison, for those felony convictions.

Former Ramsey County Attorney, Susan Gaertner, told KSTP it is not “all that unusual” to have someone like Childers with multiple felony convictions, but hasn’t spent a lot of time behind bars for those offenses.

“We have, in Minnesota, one of the lowest incarceration rates in the country,” said Gaertner. “Right now, we are fourth from the bottom and we put very few Minnesota citizens in prisons compared to the rest of the country.”

Judges use a sentencing matrix laid out by the state’s Sentencing Guidelines Commission and do have limited authority to depart from those guidelines with either longer or lesser sentences under extreme circumstances.

“This is done to make sure people of color are not disproportionately sentenced to longer prison time and to make sure those who don’t have the economic means to expensive counsel face the same unbalanced outcome,” said Gaertner.

As police resources dwindle in the Twin Cities as a result of budget and ideological pressures, crime can be expected to get worse. To help offset this, the state’s courts will need to do a better job of shielding the public from violent, repeat offenders.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.