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'More cops, tough on crime': Minnesota Senate approves $200 million public safety bill

The measure would boost spending to law enforcement agencies to help them recruit more officers and stiffen penalties for violent and repeat criminal offenders.

Sen. Warren Limmer
Minnesota Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, speaks with Capitol reporters, about a public safety bill during a news conference on Monday, April 25, 2022.
Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service
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ST. PAUL — The Minnesota Senate on Monday, April 25, voted 48-19 to advance a public safety plan that would put up more money for recruiting police officers and stiffen penalties for violent offenders in the state.

The roughly $200 million plan would boost funding to local law enforcement agencies to help them recruit and retain more officers and bring on additional equipment, set new criminal penalties for carjacking, organized retail theft and fleeing a police officer, and put in place tougher penalties for those who commit repeat offenses, especially for violent crimes.

It would also make public prosecutors' charging decisions and judges' sentencing decisions in an effort that GOP lawmakers said would help to make sentences for violent offenders more uniform around the state. They said Twin Cities area county attorneys had recently made sentencing decisions that they felt broke with the Legislature's intent and they sought to make more specific what lawmakers expected of them.

“This is not a time to build bigger bureaucracies, this is a time to react to the criminal threat that is endangering our citizens,” the bill’s author, Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said. “It’s time to let the people know what’s really going on. I keep hearing from citizens almost every day, ‘Why aren’t they prosecuting? ’”

The issue of public safety has been a top priority for lawmakers this year, as the state reported an uptick in violent crime. And Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature have put up different plans to address public safety issues in Minnesota. The Senate measure is expected to move next to a conference committee, where legislators from the House and Senate will attempt to draft a compromise bill that can appease both chambers.

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House Democrats have proposed a $150 million public safety bill with targeted funding aimed at helping communities around the state with the highest rates of violence and increasing crime. The plan attempts to address the root causes of violent crime such as offering diversion programs for juvenile offenders and relying on community groups to deter violence. The bill is set to come up for a vote in the House later this week.

Republicans, who hold a majority in the Senate, said they were open to bridging the gaps in conference committee but felt their approach was better at quelling violent crime in Minnesota. They also raised concerns about sending state money to community nonprofit groups that attempt to prevent violence and offer programming to young people.

“When it comes to public safety, we are open to any discussions that help keep people safe, help keep communities across the state of Minnesota safe,” Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, told reporters. “Our approach is very simple: more cops, tough on crime.”

Senate Democrats on Monday attempted to bring their $500 million public safety bill to the floor for a vote but couldn't put up the votes to do that. They also attempted to amend the Republican bill to eliminate a defense for those who assault LGBT people, create a reward fund for those who bring forward information on cases of missing and murdered Indigenous people, expunge some criminal records automatically after a certain amount of time and boost funding for the juvenile justice system but those efforts came up short or were withdrawn on the floor.

During the more than four-hour debate, DFL lawmakers said the proposal didn't do enough to prevent causes of crime and disagreed that harsher penalties would deter violent crime in Minnesota. And they disagreed with the GOP majority's spending priority to use much of the state's $9.25 billion budget surplus for a set of tax cuts, leaving less than they'd like to address public safety.

“This is a non-budget year, but the majority is spending a lot of money in this non-budget year too, it’s just in the tax bill, not in the bill to prevent crime,” Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, said. "This bill also has some proposals that are real clunkers that are feel-good but ineffective proposals. These proposals may make some people feel safer while not actually making them safer: buyer beware."

Both Democrats and Republicans have proposed boosting funding to public defenders in the state, who threatened to strike in March and ultimately renegotiated their contracts after they raised concerns about inadequate staffing and excessive caseloads. And they agreed to amend the bill to toughen penalties related to selling fentanyl and to offer benefits to the families of law enforcement officers who take their lives after battling post-traumatic stress disorder.

MORE FROM DANA FERGUSON:
Several incumbent state legislators, particularly in the Senate, edged out competitors with more extreme views on COVID-19, election security and more.

Follow Dana Ferguson on Twitter  @bydanaferguson , call 651-290-0707 or email  dferguson@forumcomm.com.

Dana Ferguson is a Minnesota Capitol Correspondent for Forum News Service. Ferguson has covered state government and political stories since she joined the news service in 2018, reporting on the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the divided Statehouse and the 2020 election.
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