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AG’s task force on sexual assault investigations starts work

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Attorney General Lori Swanson listens as a member of a new work group on sexual assault speaks. To her right is work group chair Barb Johnson. Brian Bakst | MPR News

A new task force examining Minnesota’s system of investigating and prosecuting sex crimes held its first meeting Tuesday, aiming to dissect problems and propose solutions before the Legislature returns to work in January.

The working group convened by departing Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson tried at its initial meeting to determine the scope of its task, from recommending law changes covering investigations and prosecutions to suggesting new spending on victim support networks.

“Let’s learn from what is working, and let’s improve the things that aren’t working,” Swanson, a DFLer in the final months of a third term, said at the outset. “Let’s make Minnesota a national leader when it comes to dealing with sex assault investigations and the manner in which the criminal justice system handles them.”

The working group is on a compressed timetable, with a goal of producing a final report in December. After that, it will require buy-in from lawmakers. But Swanson said public attention on the issue is high amid reports of systematic lapses.

She said areas of deliberation will include investigator training, development of a model policy for handling cases, and strengthening of victim rights.

“If it’s hard for them to come forward or they come forward feel it is futile because files are not opened and cases aren’t assigned to investigators or they are not being told what the progress of investigations is, they might drop off and they do drop off at times,” she said.

The panel was formed after the Star Tribune’s “Denied Justice” series highlighted low prosecution rates, difficulty tying together related cases and other gaps that sometimes get in the way of convictions.

Former Minneapolis City Council chair Barb Johnson is leading the diverse panel, whose members range from law enforcement representatives to prosecutors to victim advocacy groups. She and members invited one another to critique what others in the system are doing well or struggling with.

“I really like the idea of people telling us where they see the glitches and where the problems are,” Johnson said. “I think it’s the experiences that were brought out in the articles that opened our eyes to the challenges that victims encountered in the system.”

One challenge will be to fashion proposals that can be applied to both big-city departments, which handle many cases, and rural agencies that might encounter only a few, making it hard for them to dedicate and train full-time staff.

The attorney general’s task force isn’t the only group searching for solutions. The board that licenses Minnesota peace officers is also reviewing standards and training for assault investigations.