COL Community influences sentences
By Ray Schmitz and Amy Klobuchar
As prosecutors, we focus on doing justice in the courtroom. But we also know the fight against crime does not start in the courthouse or even the police station. It starts with each of us as a member of the community.
For police and prosecutors to do the most effective job protecting public safety, we need a strong working relationship with the local community. The fight against crime must truly be a communitywide concern.
Consider the impact of illegal drugs.
In the 1980s and 1990s, many urban neighborhoods were devastated by crack cocaine.
More recently, the epidemic of methamphetamine addiction has hit many smaller towns and rural areas, including southern Minnesota. It breeds a host of problems like violent crimes, thefts, child neglect, even public health risks from the toxic chemicals used in making meth.
As these examples show, crimes not only victimize individuals. They can also victimize whole neighborhoods and communities.
When kids have to go by a drug house on their way to school, or senior citizens are afraid to leave their homes, or people cannot park their cars on the street because of break-ins and vandalism, then the whole community is a crime victim.
Too often, only the judge, prosecutor and defense attorney with the defendant are present in the courtroom. Inside those four walls, it is easy to lose sight of the real people and the neighborhoods that are harmed by crime.
That is why we need to continue building connections between what's happening in our communities and what happens in the courthouse. For public trust and the accountability of our justice system, the community's voice should be heard in the courtroom.
Minnesota Statute 611A.038 specifically allows community representatives as well as individual victims to submit impact statements to the court, either orally or in writing, about the effects of a crime on their neighborhood or community.
This kind of "community impact statement" is an important opportunity for local residents and businesses to speak up about how the community itself was victimized by a crime. It is especially important for livability crimes like drug dealing, vandalism and nuisance properties, which sometimes get less attention as supposedly "victimless" crimes.
Our prosecutors have worked with local groups to obtain community impact statements on cases that affect their neighborhoods. With these statements, individuals were able to describe how a particular defendant's criminal activity affected the quality of life in the neighborhood, and they have provided input for prosecutors to use in court on matters such as sentencing and probation revocation.
Judges often say they are glad to have this kind of community information when deciding how to deal with a defendant. Our prosecutors can point to cases where community input has resulted in defendants getting longer sentences or tougher probation conditions.
Community impact statements can also make a difference in dealing with nuisance properties.
Throughout Minnesota, there are many great examples of communities coming together to fight crime, and there are many things that local residents can do to make a difference:
It can be as simple as watching out for your neighbors (especially kids and seniors). Or it can be a call to the local school or police when you see a kid who is truant from school. Or it may mean reporting a crime and then going to court to testify as a witness.
From the street to the courtroom, we need the community's interest and involvement to make sure justice is done and public safety is protected.
Ray Schmitz is the Olmsted County Attorney and Amy Klobuchar is the Hennepin County Attorney.
BOX: Schmitz and Klobuchar will co-host a public program with AARP Minnesota on "Fighting Crime, Involving the Community" with updates on identity theft, methamphetamine and Level 3 sex offenders. Free and open to the public, the program is Tuesday from9 a.m. to noon at the Best Western Apache in Rochester. Registration starts at 8:30 a.m.