Minnesota Prosecutor Tony Palumbo Responds to PROTECT

Anoka County’s actual sex crimes prosecution record is one to be proud of

Originally published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune

May 28, 2019

Text in red is Mr. Weeks’ response to commentary by Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo

Read Grier Weeks’ original article here

A confusing argument and fuzzy statistics painted a false portrait of our efforts. 

By Tony Palumbo  

The Anoka County Attorney’s Office acknowledges merit in the surface theme of Grier Weeks’ “How is court handling sexual violence cases?” (Opinion Exchange, May 22). Sex crimes are abhorrent, and we’d like to see justice served in every case.

We disagree, however, with the undercurrent of Weeks’ commentary, which implies prosecutors are disinterested in actual justice, so long as they are re-elected.

[My commentary did not say or imply prosecutors in general are “disinterested in actual justice.” Good sex crimes prosecutors are true heroes. I compared Anoka County’s record unfavorably to Ramsey County’s.]

The argument is difficult to follow as the writer jumps from one issue to another, beginning with “child sexual abuse and rape,” to the broader “sexual assault,” then back to “victims under 13,” and finally landing on “sexual exploitation crimes.” This misdirection has a dizzying effect.

[Apologies to anyone who couldn’t keep up, but to characterize making more than one point as “misdirection” or “dizzying” is a little over the top.]

Weeks highlighted statistics from a handful of Minnesota counties, including Anoka County. He wrote: “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.”

The author conflates prosecution and conviction rates. A prosecution rate is the rate at which referred cases are charged. 

[…or the rate of successful prosecutions compared to population, which is the more objective measure we use.]

Conviction rates refer to charged cases resulting in convictions. 

[This is the age-old prosecutor self-report card method: start with cherry-picked cases then give oneself an “A” for winning them. Comparing convictions only to “charged cases” would reward those who prosecute only slam-dunk cases.]

But Weeks takes the confusion an extra step and offers instead a sentencing statistic.

[Readers shouldn’t be too confused here. The data makes clear that Ramsey County got better sentencing outcomes than Anoka did, which is the point for most people.]

He inaccurately states that Anoka and Ramsey counties “prosecuted sexual assault at similar rates.” 

[Again, our data tool compares successful prosecutions, or convictions, per capita. If poor performance and low referral rates by law enforcement (which Mr. Palumbo addresses next) or child protective services is hurting prosecution outcomes, prosecutors should take the lead in fixing those problems.]

In Ramsey County, according to their 2018 report, about 30% of reports reviewed by law enforcement were referred to the county attorney’s office, and 37% of those were charged.

Anoka County law enforcement agencies refer 100% of criminal sexual conduct cases to the County Attorney’s Office. Our prosecution rate is 42%.

[Here, Mr. Palumbo is claiming that Anoka law enforcement agencies are more responsive to sexual violence cases than Ramsey County agencies and that his office prosecutes at a higher rate than Ramsey County does. We do not have the data to confirm or dispute this as stated, but we will take some credit for seeing referral rates and prosecutorial decision-making on sex crimes finally being addressed publicly. We also applaud Ramsey prosecutor John Choi’s efforts to increase his own transparency and accountability.]

Using the same data Weeks used from the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission, here’s the Anoka County breakdown for 2007-2016:

• Total charged criminal sexual conduct cases: 254.

• Cases counted by Weeks: 30.

(Why? Out of the total 254 cases, 88% involved juvenile victims. Weeks, here, counts only adult victims.)

[Correct. I was giving a single, notable example of one type of sentencing outcome: rape of women and men. Anoka’s results for child predators are also weaker than Ramsey’s, but I had a 700-word limit. In Ramsey County, 45% of all convictions for criminal sexual conduct against children resulted in prison, while in Anoka just 31% did. Ramsey gave misdemeanor probation (stays of imposition) to 26% of the child sexual abusers who got stays instead of prison, while in Anoka, the percentage was 41%.]

• Cases with a presumptive stayed sentence: 13 (43% of the 30 cases).

• Presumptive prison commit: 17 (57%).

[Here, Mr. Palumbo introduces a new factor, sentencing guidelines, which in Minnesota generally “presume” much lower sentences than the law provides. But the reader should keep her eye on the ball: Ramsey County must live by the same guidelines as Anoka, yet their sentencing outcomes were markedly better (72% of those who raped adult victims went to prison, compared to 33% in Anoka). Why? Either Anoka is saddled with judges who take sexual violence far less seriously or Anoka is charging and pleading differently, leading to weaker presumptive guidelines. We make no judgement about individual cases, but rather examined a full decade of cases.]

• How many went to prison: 10.

(Of the seven cases in which the defendant was presumed to go to prison but didn’t: One violated probation and is now in prison; five were ordered to years of supervised release, predatory offender registration and sex offender treatment; and one received a stay of execution following his co-defendant’s acquittal.)

The 33% prison rate offered by Weeks represents just 10 cases.

[We did not generate this low number, Anoka County did.]

Using the same data, in which 224 cases involved a juvenile victim, 94% of defendants were adults. There was a presumptive stayed sentence in 55% of those cases and a presumptive commit in 45%. Of the 95 defendants presumed to go to prison, 70% did.

[Translation: Our outcomes were weaker than even the sentencing guidelines recommended.]

This office received 2,600 felony referrals last year and charged 84%. Only 4% of those were sex crimes.

Raw numbers do not explain the complex decisionmaking process involved. Cases referred to our office are reviewed by at least two experienced prosecutors. We consult victims to help us determine how to proceed. Minnesota law dictates sentences and judges have final say in its interpretation.

Weeks’ blanket criticism centers on the lack of prison sentences in some cases.

[Again, my criticism was not a blanket criticism. We singled out some counties (including Washington, Carver, and Anoka) for poor performance, but we also singled out others for praise.]

In Minnesota, a person sentenced to prison spends two-thirds of the sentence in custody and one-third under supervision, and then they are no longer supervised by the criminal justice system.

This is why prosecutors often offer plea agreements where the maximum prison time is stayed (hanging over the defendant’s head) 

[This is a fair argument for what are often called “split sentences.” Sexual predators do in fact need intensive supervision and restrictions for as long as possible after prison. However, no one should understand better than prosecutors how much Minnesota’s laws need to be strengthened. PROTECT is very concerned that the prosecutors’ state association is not fighting for stronger guidelines and longer post-incarceration supervision.]

[…] in exchange for more intense accountability, including predatory offender registration, sex offender treatment, and many years of supervised probation.

[Here, Mr. Palumbo brings up the elephant in the room. There is a prominent and widespread philosophical belief in the Minnesota criminal justice system in “treatment” for child sexual predators. Virtually no one calls for therapy for predators who rape adults (or commit other violent crimes, for that matter). That suggestion would draw outrage and ridicule. Yet, predators who rape children are viewed by many as an exception. Unlike adult victims, children have no ability to consent to this double standard, and they alone bear the risks for society’s naive unwillingness to confront the violence and destruction of child sexual abuse.]

Weeks no doubt found an area of criminal justice that is rightly subject to scrutiny. But he is using misinformation and half-truths.

[“Charge what you can prove and prove what you charge.”]

We are transparent. Our numbers are public. We simply ask anyone using that data to do so fairly and honestly, without misrepresenting our work.

[The entire point of our commentary was that – until PROTECT’s Community Safety Tool – the record of Minnesota prosecutors (like those everywhere) has not been transparent. Without the tool, Anoka’s “numbers are public” only to sophisticated researchers. People all over America contributed to our effort, enabling Minnesotans to see now what those in 49 other states wish they could. It’s time now for Minnesota’s anti-sexual violence advocates, news media, survivor community, and other concerned citizens to show they care, look at the data, and demand better.

We also invite Weeks to Anoka County to learn how these cases are handled and why these decisions are made.

[Thank you. It is our great hope that sex crimes prosecutors will welcome and benefit from increased scrutiny from those who, like us, admire the tough work they do and want to see them get increased support, training, and funding.]

Tony Palumbo is Anoka County Attorney.

Back to Top