Stearns County sheriff: Prison population, crime rate 'only complicated for liberals'

Stearns County Sheriff Don Gudmundson, seen here during his 2010 retirement from Dakota County, has a long career in law enforcement. What has he learned from it?

Stearns County Sheriff Don Gudmundson, seen here during his 2010 retirement from Dakota County, has a long career in law enforcement. What has he learned from it? Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

On Monday, the Star Tribune published a story on Minnesota’s incarceration rate, and how its slight increase last year goes against a larger trend of reduced incarceration.

The 1 percent rise in imprisonment comes as Minnesota’s crime rate dropped by 24 percent, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts study quoted in the article. As noted in the story, most states have seen incarceration and crime rates fall simultaneously. 

One expert interviewed for the story "suggested caution on drawing a relationship between sending more people to prison and a crime reduction."

Monday morning, Star Tribune reporter Andy Mannix received an email from a Donald Gudmundson, who'd read Mannix's story. Gudmundson attributed Minnesota's drop in crime to its increased incarceration rate. Lock more criminals up, less crime. Simple as that. 

"Well, duh!" Gudmundson wrote.

Mannix wrote back to Gudmundson, telling him his logic was an oversimplification of a complicated issue. Gudmundson's reply: "Only complicated for liberals like you." Mannix tweeted about the email later that day.

Though he wrote the reporter from a personal email account, Gudmundson has a public position. He's the sheriff of central Minnesota's Stearns County, which includes St. Cloud and extends west, giving Gudmundson jurisdiction over 150,000 people.

City Pages reached out to Gudmundson to comment on the email exchange and his views on criminal justice. Gudmundson declined to elaborate. “I have too much to do to visit with you, sorry," he wrote in an email, adding, in reference to his emails to Mannix: "Phone was my private phone and not government phone.“

Gudmundson, a Minnesota native, has a long career in law enforcement, starting in the 1970s as a police officer in Detroit, where he became the youngest homicide detective in city history. He followed that by investigating the mafia in Chicago until 1978, when he returned to Minnesota and became sheriff of Fillmore County. He has since held positions as police chief for Lakeville and became Dakota County’s longtime sheriff in 1994 until he decided to not seek a fifth term in 2010.

Gudmundson is the only person in Minnesota history to serve as sheriff of multiple counties, according to a profile in the Star Tribune.

Gudmundson’s off-color comments may come as a surprise to some who know his track record, which reveals progressive tendencies. While in Dakota County, he fostered one of the most racially diverse agencies in the state. That effort included hiring William Anderson, who later became the first black police chief in St. Cloud, a position he holds to this day.

Gudmundson followed his Dakota stint with an interim sheriff position in Steele County throughout the rest of 2010. In 2017, seven years after Gudmundson left Steele County, Stearns County had an opening for interim sheriff. Gudmundson put his name in, despite his living in Lakeville (Dakota County), and was selected by county commissioners over several other candidates for the job, which comes with a $150,000-plus salary. The county will vote in November for a full-time position, and Gudmundson has said he has no plans to seek the position full time.

After all these years in law enforcement, how good is Gudmundson's grasp on how imprisoning people affects the crime rate? Studies show a weak relationship between the two, at best.

In a 2015 story for MinnPost, Mannix, the reporter-recipient of Gudmundson's letter, explored how the two statistics interact. According to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice, trends like declining alcohol consumption and income growth had far greater effects on a declining crime rate than an increase in prisoners.

Lauren-Brooke Eisen, one of the study’s authors, was quoted in that story saying, “Incarceration’s impact on crime in the last 15 years has been almost zero.”

An even more recent study from the Brennan Center is available here, in case Gudmundson wants to read it before firing off his next email.