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Polk County an outlier for incarceration in Minnesota

Justice administration in Minnesota varies across its 10 judicial districts and 87 counties, each of which has its own prosecutor's office, but in recent years Polk County in the northwest corner of the state remains an outlier for sentencing.

A New York Times analysis of data from the National Corrections Program found the county sent more people to prison per capita than any other in the state in 2014.

That finding didn't come as much of a shock to many in the state judicial community. Minnesota's top public defender says Polk County is well-known for its prosecutorial zeal.

"I think their approach to prosecution and incarceration is antiquated at best and pretty horrific at worst," State Public Defender William Ward said. "And that is certainly the culture of the elected county attorney and their office."

East Grand Forks attorney David Dusek has been practicing law in the area since 1992 and said Polk County Attorney Greg Widseth inherited a challenging situation when he came into the office in 2002.

"When Greg Widseth got hired he was going to get tough on crime," Dusek said.

Incarceration rates

Andrew Larson, the executive director of the Tri-County Correctional Center which serves Polk, Norman and Red Lake Counties, said that even accounting for population, Polk County is overwhelmingly sending the highest rate of people to the jail.

"The usage rate out of Polk County is significantly higher than the other partner counties, and that's very much just difference in philosophies in terms of arrests and prosecution," Larson said.

Tri-County has averaged about 180 inmates a day in 2017. About 120 of those inmates are from Norman, Red Lake and Polk Counties, which have a combined population of about 43,000.

Larson said he recently was reaching out to other area facilities of comparable size to see what their averages looked like and found Crow Wing County Corrections average daily population is 103, with a county population of about 63,000.

Polk County has about 32,000 residents, making it the 34th most populated county in the state. But Polk County has the fourth most inmates, 29, currently serving time in the women's state correctional center in Shakopee, Minn., according to their November inmate profile report. Dakota County in the Twin Cities metro area has a population of 417,486 and currently has 22 women incarcerated in Shakopee.

Larson said Polk County had been a top five contributor to the state women's prison for the last five years.

Polk County Attorney Greg Widseth he's not surprised by that, because he said many female offenders in Polk County choose to execute their sentence, meaning that when facing long probation periods the offenders opt instead to serve their sentence behind bars.

"We repeatedly have women come in and ask for execution of their sentence," Widseth said. "They don't want to be on probation."

Widseth said offenders in the county, male or female, choosing to execute, or serve jail time, for their sentences instead of taking lengthy probation terms, explains the high incarceration rate and the high rate of aggravated dispositional departures in Polk County.

He also said proximity to Grand Forks, major highways running through it leading to casinos, and the large geographical size impact their numbers.

"I think it's hard to simplify it down to 'we send more people to prison,' " Widseth said.

Departure differences

Departure rates are the frequency with which a person is sentenced to a punishment outside of established sentencing guidelines. An aggravated dispositional departure means an offense for which probation would typically be recommended earns prison time, while a mitigated dispositional departure would see someone expecting prison to get probation. A durational departure is when someone receives a longer or shorter sentence than guidelines require.

In Polk County, aggravated dispositional departures are higher than state averages, and mitigated departures are lower.

In 2016, 15 percent of Minnesota offenders received a dispositional departure from state guidelines, according to state data. In 3 percent of those cases offenders received an aggravated dispositional departure and went to prison instead of being on probation. In 36 percent of cases, offenders received a mitigated dispositional departure and avoided incarceration.

In Polk County, 24 offenders, or 11 percent, received a dispositional departure, state records show. Ten of those offenders, or 4.6 percent, received an aggravated dispositional departure. Just 14 offenders, 6.5 percent, received a mitigated dispositional departure.

In 2015, 11 percent of offenders eligible for probation received aggravated dispositional departures in Polk County, while 24 percent received mitigated departures and avoided prison.

Kelly Mitchell, executive director of the University of Minnesota's Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice, said that while mitigating departure rates are not uniform in Minnesota, Polk County numbers were low.

"I wouldn't say that Polk needs to be at 30 (percent), but they'd probably be more in line with the rest of the state if they were in the 20s," Mitchell said.

Ward said the public defender's office has not had success with obtaining mitigating dispositional departures in Polk County.

"Virtually every time they are objected to by the county attorney's office when we make those requests and they are an outlier in that way, too, in that they rarely grant durational dispositional departures in that county," Ward said.

Widseth said most of the aggravated dispositional departures fall into three categories: defendants who don't want to be on extended probation and execute their sentence, people on probation for one or more felony offenses who get charged with a new crime and plead guilty to serve both sentences at once, and people who plead guilty to a lesser offense than they were initially charged with and go to prison for a shorter amount of time.

That philosophy is known to lawyers in the area.

"If you take a plea in that jurisdiction that condition is going to be some sort of jail time," Dusek said.

Drug free zones

A noticeable difference between Polk County and others is the rate at which people are charged with possessing drugs in a school or park zone.

A MinnPost analysis of the Sentencing Guideline Commission data from 2011 to 2015 found Polk County accounted for half of the 83 people who pleaded guilty to possessing drugs in a park or school zone during that time.

Once Dusek had a client who was pulled over in East Grand Forks and stopped near Sacred Heart School.

"Had he gone up another block or so and pulled over, he was fine. But because he pulled over immediately because you see the red lights, now you've stopped in a school zone and now that comes into play," Dusek said. "Is that what the intent of the law is? The answer is probably not."

East Grand Forks Police Chief Mike Hedlund said his officers mark locations within school or park zones when they write citations, but ultimately the decision to charge someone with being inside that zone is left to the prosecutors. He said most of the city technically falls within a school or park zone.

Widseth said he knows other countries don't charge the statute nearly as often, but said he has not received any pushback from the public.

"It's my belief that drugs shouldn't be anywhere near our schools or our parks, and I think most of our public would agree we don't want them near our kids or our park zones, so yes, we charge those," Widseth said.

Cultural differences

Across Minnesota, experts see a separation in justice between the Twin Cities and outstate regions.

Rural districts tend to stick more closely to sentencing guidelines than urban districts, Mitchell said.

"In general, there's a more conservative approach to sentencing in the rural areas," Mitchell said.

Mitchell used to be the director for the Minnesota Sentencing Commission and said they studied drug sentencing throughout the state's 10 judicial districts.

"We were able to determine that where you were sentenced was a pretty good predictor of what your sentence would be, as opposed to what your offense was," Mitchell said.

Ward said a meeting with Northwest Minnesota prosecutors and law enforcement on changing drug sentencing guidelines revealed harder-edged attitudes about crime in the region.

"What they perceived as outrageous and horrific criminal behavior in any other jurisdiction would be pretty minor stuff."

More than any urban-rural divide, Ward believes the practice comes from not being informed on data showing incarceration doesn't necessarily make communities safer.

"There is no evidence-based practice that supports that approach, in fact it's the exact opposite," Ward said. "For whatever reason Mr. Widseth is unwilling or purposefully not willing to look at the data that shows these extended sentences do nothing."

Widseth said his office strives for consistency.

"We try to look at our cases and charge what is supported by probable cause and what we believe is appropriate in the case," Widseth said. "And yes, we charge park zone changes. We charge them when they're there. I know lots of counties don't, and that's the decision they made."