Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan criticized the judicial system Tuesday for waiving penalties for gun crimes, but Hennepin County Judge Mark Wernick said Wednesday that reducing gun violence isn't as simple as imposing maximum sentences.
Wernick spoke with MPR News' Tom Crann on Wednesday as part of an MPR News series this week on gun violence. The series, "Following the Firearms: Gun Violence in Minneapolis," examines where guns are coming from and the impact of gun violence in Minnesota's largest city.
Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan said Tuesday that the judicial system needs to stick to tough penalties for gun crimes.
"If we see those things constantly being waived or we have sentences that deviate from those penalties, then they don't carry much water and there's no fear with them," Dolan said.
During an interview with MPR News, Wernick, the presiding judge of Hennepin County District Court's criminal division, addressed Dolan's remarks and the broader question of the role of the judicial system in reducing gun crime.
An edited transcript of that conversation is below.
Tom Crann: Yesterday we spoke with (Minneapolis) Police Chief Dolan, and we asked about sentencing when it comes to gun crime. And he said pretty much the sentencing or the guidelines are there, but sometimes it's a concern for him about the application of them. How do you respond to that?
Judge Mark Wernick: I guess I need to understand what he means on a case-by-case basic. I'm not surprised that he would disagree in some cases about the way a sentence is handed down. We often know more about the defendant, though, than does a police officer or Chief Dolan.
Crann: So let me ask about the process of how it works for laymen who are not part of the system. Is it simple to say that for crimes committed with a firearm, that automatically there is time added, a fixed amount, to the sentence? Does it work that simply?
Wernick: There is a presumption that a prison sentence will be imposed, generally a minimum of three years. However, judges have the authority to ... depart from the guidelines by not putting the person in prison. We could have a person do up to one year in jail, as a condition of probation. Or we could have a person do less than three years in prison if there are substantial and compelling reasons to do so.
If, however, the defendant has been convicted of a crime which involved a gun sometime in the past, any time in the past, then the legislature has said we must put that person in prison for the mandatory minimum amount of time. So we will only avoid prison in cases where it's the first offense involving a gun.
Crann: Philosophically, what would go into a decision like that? What are you taking into account on the bench when you would decide maybe to forgo that, the three years in prison, as you say, for a first offender?
Wernick: Well, we have to decide whether or not the defendant is, the legal phrase is, 'particularly amenable to probation.' So if we have a defendant who is relatively young, whose criminal history is either nothing or very small, if this young person accepts responsibility and shows remorse and genuine empathy with the victim of the crime, if the young person has family support in community court, if he or she is amenable to job programming, an education program, chemical dependency programs or mental health programs, we will consider all of those factors and decide that it may be in the public interest to put this person on probation.
Keep in mind, when we put somebody on probation, that person will be under court supervision for a much longer time than he would have been or she would have been had we sent them to prison. So if a mandatory minimum penalty is three years in prison, the person does two years, they're on supervised release for another year, and then they're done. But if it's a robbery case involving a gun and I want to put this person on probation, I can keep them under court supervision for up to 20 years.
Crann: Take us inside the courtroom. Is it possible to generalize? Is there a commonality among perpetrators when it comes to gun crimes, especially in what motivates them?
Wernick: I would have to say, and this is anecdotal, but you do see a lot of people with gun crimes where there's someone else in their family who has been to prison. You see people from broken homes who've been raised by a relative or people who've had very little contact with loved ones.
And you see people who are exposed to guns at a very early age and who may view having a gun as a real status symbol within the community. At the same time, we see people like that who we think we can get to, who we think we can turn around.
(Interview edited and transcribed by MPR reporter Madeleine Baran)