-Protect.org has been around since 2004 advocating for better laws to combat child exploitation across the Country. At WCW we first heard of protect.org work from Kare11's series on MN weak sex offender law. Most notably your research led you to say "Minnesota’s sentencing for child exploitation material is, without a close second, the weakest in the nation." Tell us more about your work in Minnesota.
I’m sorry to say it but PROTECT began working in Minnesota because we saw two huge injustices that really made the state stand out.
First, Minnesota has a very intentional loophole in its laws for incest perpetrators. If someone rapes his own child, no matter how young the victim is, he can get probation as long as a judge decides it is in the best interests of the “family unit.” This sounds more like something you’d expect to hear about Arkansas, but Arkansas modernized its incest laws in 2003 and is now progressive by comparison.
The second thing that really sets Minnesota apart is the way you respond to trafficking of child sexual abuse imagery, or what’s commonly called “child pornography.” PROTECT has worked on this issue nationally since 2006, and we’ve never seen anything like Minnesota. Here, prison is rare and reduction of charges to a misdemeanor is normal. This outraged us, but it’s also heartbreaking. This is a human rights crime. Children have been turned into sexual commodities, and it’s incredibly backwards and harmful to decriminalize it this way.
-Why do you think Minnesota has these problems?
The root of the problem seems to be a cultural need to believe that sexual predators can be fixed through therapy, so therefore prison is a misguided solution. We’ve seen that mindset in a lot of different places, and it’s not really liberal or conservative. But it seems very pervasive in Minnesota.
When people call for therapy instead of prison its usually for those who sexually assault children, not adults. If someone rapes a 25-year-old, most people take that seriously. The victim is capable of demanding justice, for one thing. And nobody really believes a therapist is going to fix the rapist anyway. It's just not seen as an appropriate outcome.
However, if the offender rapes a nine-year-old, that’s so disturbing it’s a threat to a lot of people’s view of the world. They want to believe the problem is a sickness, and something we can cure. Over time, this mentality begins to shape everyone’s approach, including prosecutors and judges.
The bottom line is that if you want to break the cycle of abuse, you have to remove predatory adults from access to children and give those kids some semblance of safety. It doesn’t really matter whether you personally believe people can be fixed or redeemed. If you think therapy will change them, deliver it in a secure setting, behind bars. But don’t nominate defenseless children to take the risk.
-Tell us about your latest "Community Safety Tool" found at www.protect.org/safetytool and it's features.
The Community Safety Tool just made Minnesota the first state in America where the average citizen can find out
There are signs that Americans are waking up on this issue, but it has to be about more than hashtags and celebrity stories. We’re eager to see how people will use this information to demand change.
The tool allows people to see and compare how sexual violence crimes have been handled in their county, and others, over a decade. We took the records on all felony convictions for these crimes from the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission and put them online in a way that’s easy to search.
The automated part of our website lets you search by county, type of crime, age of victim, and time period. Then you get results on several key things.
First, is sentencing. You can find out how many offenders went to prison versus how many got probation instead. Then, we break down how much time in local jail people actually got if they were given probation. We also show you which type of probation prosecutors and judges are using, traditional or reduction to a misdemeanor.
The site also lets you see how many cases a county successfully prosecuted and compares it to population size, so that you can get an idea of the prosecution rate. This is very important, because strong sentencing doesn’t mean that much if you are cherry-picking only slam dunk cases and leaving many victims without justice.
We also show how actual sentencing compared to what the guidelines recommended. I think these findings were the biggest surprise. Minnesota’s sentencing guidelines result in sentences that are much shorter than the law allows, and we thought we’d see judges and prosecutors pushing the envelope more. But sentencing is mostly weaker than even the guildelines recommend.
-We found with your Safety Tool there has been 114 convictions of "criminal sexual conduct" over the last ten years in Washington County. That does not include the unsolved and unreported cases. This correlates with our 19 articles on individual child rape cases in just 2018. So every month for the last ten years one or more children have been raped that we know of in Washington County. Do you see this prevalence of child rape and exploitation in other MN Counties?
In a recent report, Ramsey County prosecutor John Choi compared sexual assault cases to a giant funnel. At the top are all the incidences of rape and abuse, reported and unreported. We know from a lot of research that most rapes are never even reported.
Once reported, cases go through a process of attrition as they move through the system. In other words, what comes out the bottom of the funnel in the form of criminal convictions with meaningful sentences is a trickle compared to what went into the top of the funnel.
In a county the size of Washington, you can be sure that the number of actual child rape victims is vastly higher than those successfully prosecuted by your county attorney, Pete Orput. One indicator would be to see how many reports of child sexual abuse were made to social services and police. Even if you just compare the smaller number that were substantiated by social services and referred for prosecution, you’ll see a big difference. Citizens should be asking why. Where did all those cases go?
You can also draw some conclusions about how your public servants are doing by looking at the county’s rate of successful prosecutions. We’ve listed all 87 Minnesota counties and ranked them, by size group. Washington County lags well behind other large counties and its rate of convictions is five times lower than many small counties.
Now that citizens can see this for the first time, they should be pressuring their justice system to do better. That includes demanding more aggressive prosecution, stronger sentencing, and additional resources to hire more sex crimes prosecutors.
We simply compared the number of convictions to the population of your county. Our assumption is that rape and abuse happens everywhere, more or less at the same rates. Some people might imagine it’s a bigger problem in some areas than others, but I don’t think there’s any evidence at all to support that idea. Rural people are not worse than suburban, and suburban people are not worse than urban.
Reporting might differ, and referrals to law enforcement might differ, depending upon the resources and attitudes of local social service agencies and police. But in order for a community the size of Washington County to have such a low rates of prosecution, you can be sure that a huge number of cases are simply not being taken seriously.
-Our investigation of all 50 states child sex offender laws found MN has the weakest laws. When you compare State to State do you also find tougher laws like life time registration on a public database help deter child rape?
When used well, sex offender registration clearly helps communities keep their children safer. Ask any good parent whether they would rather know or not know that a convicted sex offender is living near them and you’ll always get a “yes.”
Unfortunately though, politicians have used registries as a way to avoid spending money on prison and intensive sex offender probation. Prosecutors and judges also use registration as a way to look like they’re doing more than they are.
Former congressman Mark Foley is a good example. When nine-year-old Jessica Lunsford was abducted and buried alive, Foley talked very tough about sex offender registration, comparing sex offenders to wild animals and saying they should be registered and tracked. That sounded much tougher than calling for very low-caseload, high-supervision sex offender probation, which costs a lot of money but is far safer than simply listing them on the internet. By the way, Foley later resigned after it came out he was a sexual predator himself.
Every time a lawmaker like Rep. Matt Grossell introduces a bill to strengthen sentencing or impose intensive surveillance and containment of those released, other lawmakers look at the “fiscal impact” and back off. They just don’t want to pay what it costs. They’re not willing to cut any of their other budget priorities to keep children safer.
That leaves prosecutors to negotiate plea bargains for sex offender registration, pretending that they’ve gotten a good result. Look at the case of billionaire predator Jeffrey Epstein, who’s now in the news. He got a few months of “work release” and lifetime registration. It was a scandalous failure of justice.
Finally, most child sexual abuse happens in the home, or in a child’s “circle of trust.” So, while it’s good to know the address of a sexual predator, you don’t know whether he’s mowing his lawn or preying on another child.
But yes, registration does matter. Keeping the pressure on will prevent many atrocities from happening.
-What's your work in MN look like for this coming 2019 session?
We have a small staff and don’t have any legislative plans for 2019 in Minnesota. However, we are counting on Minnesotans to use the Community Safety Tool to design and pass smart legislation. I can’t emphasize enough what a resource your state now has. Until now, the justice system was functioning largely in the dark. Many of the debates your legislature has had for years went on without the hard facts that make all the difference. Without facts, you just have opinions, and you know what those are worth.
You are now the first group of Americans ever to have easy practical access to this information. People in other states would love to have this resource. I hope you’ll use it to demand improvement and reform.
-What's the best place to follow you for updates and find out how to donate and support you? Simply Protect.org
Thanks for asking. We have just created Twitter and Instagram feeds to share our major findings with Minnesotans. You can follow us on Twitter at @thesafetytool and on Instagram at @communitysafetytool. If the conversation grows, we will also provide updates on the Community Safety Tool website itself, which is www.protect.org/safetytool.
We’ve created this for you, so we hope you will join in and begin leading the conversation.