DFL senators vote against tougher penalties for child predators

Democrat Sens. Ron Latz and Sandra Pappas voted against the bill.

Left: Sen. Ron Latz/Minnesota Senate. Right: Sen. Sandra Pappas/Minnesota Senate.

Minnesota is at or close to dead last in the nation when it comes to prosecuting child predators. Over 80 percent of predators caught trading in and possessing child sexual abuse imagery (child pornography) receive probation, not prison time, in Minnesota. These predators have massive “collections” that depict the rape and torture of prepubescent children, including infants and toddlers.

Despite Minnesota’s last in the nation status, policymakers in St. Paul have either tinkered around the edges of the problem, or declined to acknowledge a problem exists at all.

The backstory

First, data was gathered by an outside group that showed how bad Minnesota’s sentencing was. Even among the predators caught producing child sexual abuse imagery, only 25 percent have gone to prison over the last five years.

A bill authored by GOP Sen. Warren Limmer in 2019 attempted to address the problem by raising the maximum penalty for predators caught trading in these materials, if the predator had a record or if the victims in the materials were under the age of 13.

Limmer’s bill also asked the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission (MSGC) to examine the issue, and determine if Minnesota’s penalties should be toughened. The MSGC is a body created by the Legislature that creates the specific guidelines used by courts in sentencing.

All of 2020, the MSGC worked on its report and conclusion. When the MSGC report was released in early 2021, a slight majority of the MSGC — all appointees of Gov. Tim Walz — declined to change the presumption from probation to prison for enhanced possession or distribution crimes, which involve a repeat offender or child pornography where the victim is proven to be 12 or under.

The MSGC only moved to presume prison for production charges and if the victim is 12 or under. The MSGC worried that its decision would spark prosecutions of teenage sexters, which is a non-issue.

The MSGC also admitted that the vast majority of predators currently given probation possess materials depicting children 12 and under. The MSGC further admitted that these materials in the hands of predators — called “collections” — routinely depict the rape and torture of young children, infants, and toddlers. Predators possessing these materials is the norm, not the outlier.

Democrats vote against tougher penalties

Because of the MSGC inaction and clear obfuscation of the issue, Senate GOP leadership crafted SF 1457, coauthored by GOP Sens. Warren Limmer and Mary Kiffmeyer. The bill was heard in the Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee, chaired by Limmer, on Monday.

In a nutshell, SF 1457 would specifically direct the MSGC to presume prison for the crime of dissemination of child abuse materials, where the predator is a repeat offender or a child under 13 is the victim. While the penalty would be raised for the crime of enhanced possession, the presumption would still be probation.

Kelly Lyn Mitchell, Walz’s handpicked chair of the MSGC, testified to oppose SF 1457. She worried about too high of penalties due to Hernandizing (stringing together charges) without acknowledging the actual sentencing record of the state. She claimed the offenders in question had low recidivism, echoing the report’s analysis on this issue. It is likely that many simply evade detection after being caught a first time.

Democrat Sens. Ron Latz, the minority chair, and Sandra Pappas voted against SF 1457.

Latz worried about the cost of SF 1457, due to higher imprisonment rates, ignoring the cost to law enforcement resources of tracking predators on probation. He also said that he understands that no cost is too great when it comes to children, but that cost was still a factor in his no vote.

Latz called the existing framework in Minnesota — where over 80 percent of predators trafficking in child abuse materials that depict the rape and torture of children receive probation — “logical.” He urged “caution” in changing the status quo, which he said he was “quite comfortable” with, even though he “understand[s] this is an uncomfortable topic.”

DFL Sen. Karla Bigham voted for Limmer’s SF 1457, stating that this was a clear-cut issue where the state needed to get tougher.

The bill passed the committee 7-2. Republican comments focused on the damage done to victims. Unfortunately, no attention was given to the safety of children in the community, nor to Minnesota’s overall record of laxity toward these crimes.

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