MINNEAPOLIS - Following a violent weekend of shootings and stabbings, city leaders called out judges for not keeping repeat offenders behind bars and off the streets. A KARE 11 Investigation discovered statistics from a state agency that backs up some of their claims.
"When someone is arrested with a gun, they need to do time. The penalties are there. Impose them," said City Council President Barbara Johnson. She represents North Minneapolis, where much of the recent violence has occurred.
On Tuesday, she publicly accused Hennepin County judges who she claims are handing down weak penalties for gun crimes.
"I want to say there are hardworking people that work in north Minneapolis that do not deserve to have their neighborhoods overrun by thugs with guns. And I'm tired of it! I have met two times this spring with the Hennepin County judges, and I am calling to them, publicly this time, to take gun crime seriously in north Minneapolis."
In response, Hennepin County judge Kevin Burke tells KARE 11 "the solutions for violent crime are more complex than cheap rhetoric attacking judges." He adds "I have an enormous amount of respect for Barb Johnson. I consider her a friend, but I profoundly disagree with her analysis."
Sentencing reports by the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission show that in 2012, nearly 52 percent of the time Hennepin Judges sentence someone to prison, it's for less time than called for by state sentencing guidelines. More than twice the statewide average of 24.9 percent.
Those numbers reflect all crimes, and in Hennepin, many of those are drug cases. Judge Burke tells KARE 11 that the majority of those sentences are part of plea deals pre-arranged by prosecutors and defense attorneys and judges such as himself rarely overrule those agreements.
He says "as you get increased caseloads, you will see more plea negotiations to try to and resolve cases and that's the reality of what we have." He adds "I don't think you can find any evidence to indicate there is significant departure on the Hennepin County bench on gun cases. I've been a judge for almost 30 years and I rarely depart on gun cases."
But a report by the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission obtained by KARE 11 shows that when it comes to sentencing for first degree aggravated robbery where a firearm is used, between 2001 and 2012 Hennepin County judges gave reduced sentences 47 percent of the time. The statewide average for the same time period was 35 percent. Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau echoed Council President Barbara Johnson's concerns saying "We are arresting people who should have been kept in jail."
Following the public call for judges to issue stiffer penalties for crimes involving guns, Minnesota Fourth Judicial District Assistant Chief Judge Ivy Bernhardson issued the following statement:
"Public safety is a key consideration whenever a judge makes a decision in a criminal case. In upholding the rule of law, judges make sentencing decisions based on the particular facts and circumstances of each case. In Hennepin County, the bench participates in the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee with stakeholders in the criminal justice system (law enforcement, prosecutors, public defenders, probation, city and county officials) that meets regularly to explore ways to improve the justice system."