Reporter's Notebook: Is targeting chronic offenders ethical?


This week City Pages highlights ten of the city's chronic offenders -- the people who constantly commit low-level crimes in Minneapolis neighborhoods. These people are police and prosecution targets. But should they be?

Not according to some of the people who defend them.

"A lot of these people are homeless, mentally ill, chemically dependent, lacking resources in many other ways," says Bob Sorensen, who heads up the adult division of the Hennepin County Public Defender and manages the attorneys often assigned to defend the city's chronic low-level criminals. "Our position is that they shouldn't be punished for their lot in life. And that position runs up against what in many cases is the city's position of essentially advocating on behalf of neighborhoods."

The city, police, social services, and prosecutors have worked together to develop a holistic approach to justice. Police call on the city's homeless shelters and social service groups for help, when arrest isn't the answer. "Often what they've found, and what Chief Dolan has said, is that we can not arrest our way out of this problem," says Monica Nilsson, director of St. Stephen's street outreach, which serves many of the homeless people downtown.

Some of the offenders we've described in our story are homeless--and that problem contributes to their delinquency, Nilsson says. In the past two years, St. Stephen's has found housing for 200 of the downtown homeless. Stable housing helps ground them as they attempt to recover from alcohol or chemical dependency, she says.

Cops, for their part, are aware of the complexity of the problem.

"We can't solve alcoholism by arresting people for a DWI," says Inspector Mike Martin, who is in charge of the North Side. "And yet we're trying to solve mental illness by arresting people for loitering and urinating in public. It's a band-aid. It's a tough one."

"The biggest problem is having an effective solution," says Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal.