In the 1970s, the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault (commonly known today as MNCASA) was created as a grassroots group of member organizations sharing resources and support to prevent sexual violence and improve advocacy efforts.
In the 1980s, following the widely publicized parking ramp attacks of Minnesota women and the murders of Native women, mounting public pressures for increased gender- based violence penalties — as well as legislative control over sentencing guidelines — led to the creation of the Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Violence Against Women in the office of the Minnesota attorney general.
The Task Force’s 1989 report suggested a more comprehensive approach to violence prevention, calling for a three-pronged attack on sexual violence: greater punishment, better treatment programs for both offenders and victims, and education and intervention to prevent violent behavior. The resulting 1989 omnibus crime bill included severe crackdowns on violent sex crimes, including increased maximums for murderers and sex offenders.
Today, Ramsey County is a leader in the state in its collaborative approach to sex crimes, pooling resources so that greater numbers of offenders are actually charged.
We talked with several of the people who are part of a team focused specifically on sexual assault cases.
A Ramsey County study in 2018 determined that in order to aggressively and appropriately handle sex crimes cases, designated teams and funding were needed. This led to the creation of several new positions and a tighter relationship with the advocacy work of the Sexual Offense Services (SOS) advocacy group. Securing the funding for these roles is not always easy.
Karen Kugler is a prosecutor for the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office Sex Trafficking and Assault Response Team (START). She works with investigators to charge cases and trains attorneys and investigators. Grant funding often helps create positions, and then the county tries to secure the money to bring them on full time.
Jessica O’Hern has been a sexual assault investigator for the local sheriff ’s department for five years, and now has a grant to work specifically on sexual assault cases with the County Attorney’s Office. She says, “Our case levels have been going up year after year, and they are not stopping.”
A study of data from 2013 to 2016 examined a sample of sexual assault cases and found that areas for improvement included contacting a victim more quickly after an assault report has been filed. O’Hern says an investigator is now required to follow up with the victim within 24 hours. With Kugler as special prosecutor assigned to sex crimes cases for the county, O’Hern is among the investigators able to talk to Kugler day or night. “Usually my cases, once I submit them, are now done within a few weeks instead of months waiting for charges.”
Brielle Bernardy collects data from different agencies in Ramsey County to help give a picture of what is happening, and what might need to happen differently.
One factor in the increased number, she says, might be that Ramsey County now requests that all reported sex crime cases be passed along to the attorney’s office so that law enforcement is not deciding they do not have enough evidence to press charges.
A Shift in Approach With Survivors
For nearly three years, Crystal Jones has been the first dedicated sex crimes detective with the Roseville police department. Her position was initially funded by the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office and a grant. The Roseville City Council decided in 2020 to continue funding the position to deal with caseloads and the complexity of investigations. Originally the work covered family and domestic violence as well as sex crimes, but the “caseloads were astronomical, so they split it into two positions.”
Jones says, “I am not sure if the [incidents] have been going up, but we have had a lot more cases of sexual assault being reported in the last five years. I think a lot of that is due to the #MeToo movement and changes we have had on how police and investigators are responding.”
She adds, “At the beginning of my career, which was only seven years ago, a patrol officer would respond to a sexual assault and take the report [as if it were a regular crime, like burglary], without a lot of human elements behind the report-taking [and without] offering resources. It was ‘let’s get the facts we need to know.’ The who, what, when, where, and why.”
Jones says that approach has dramatically changed in recent years because of better training around the nature of trauma. “Sometimes people’s reactions to being sexually assaulted are not what you would expect, and those reactions are normal. We are learning that their individual responses are related to being traumatized, and that is psychology based.”
Kugler says: “When they are asking a victim a question, and it seems like the [response] is all over the place, in the past they thought the victim was lying because they could not tell the linear progression of what happened. Or maybe they will say it one time, and then they will add some facts another time. In the past the officer’s impression might have been that they were fabricating.”
The Importance of Collaboration
Eva Morrison has a new grant-funded position as sexual assault response project manager, working with all nine law enforcement agencies in Ramsey County and including victim advocates and medical personnel. She is invited to be at interviews with victims. She explores questions such as: “How are we responding? How are we coordinating efforts collaboratively? How are we training our officers, our investigators, our advocates? [It is about] doing a much better job of including the input and feedback of survivors into the work and improvement efforts that we do.”
Morrison believes Ramsey County is ahead of the curve [in terms of] multi-disciplinary county- wide coordination. Rather than having multiple law enforcement agencies working independently, the county’s multiple jurisdictions and agencies are able to be “leaning on each other, sharing expertise, sharing resources.”
Bakst takes cases charged by Kugler. She has been the only designated prosecutor for sex crimes for two years and is relieved that a second prosecutor has recently started with a sex crimes specialization. “There are more cases than one prosecutor can handle.”
“A common theme through all of this is engagement,” Bakst says. “Victims of sexual assault have gone through a very intimate violation. For a long time, sexual assaults, and the criminal justice system in general, focused on penalties as sort of a metric for success. […] It is not always [about getting] the longest possible prison sentence for an offender. [The goal] is not simply to send people to prison. It is ultimately ‘do what you can to define success in these cases.’”
Some victims need resources to help with housing issues and family dynamics. “There are survivors that are college students and just want to be able to go to class without seeing the defendant every single day,” says trial attorney Dawn Bakst. “I have all kinds of cases where the survivors are homeless or living in hotels.”
Ramsey County is one of the most densely populated and racially diverse counties in Minnesota. Statistics indicate that fewer than 20 percent of survivors report to law enforcement, and fewer than 3 percent of reports resulted in convictions.
Currently the focus of Ramsey County’s sex crimes unit is outreach to communities that are underserved to make more people aware that it is safe to come forward and report sexual assault.
Another challenge is that there is a lot of transition in sex crime personnel because, as Kugler puts it, “it is really really hard, dark work.” Kugler switched out of prosecution of sex trafficking cases. “You can only handle so much of that deep dark life that you are living in your soul, so you have to kind of mix it up. […] That means you are retraining people, and victims do not have a consistent person from beginning to end of a process — it can take years for a case to come to trial.”
The Value of Advocates
Bakst notes, “The advocates are the secret ingredient to success here because they know what survivors need and they stick with it all the way through the process.” Many survivors carry the burden of their assault while they are trying to heal, take care of others, and go to work. Maintaining engagement with them is critical to getting to the end of the criminal justice road.
Morrison says it has been great to have multi- disciplinary teams working collaboratively, but more survivors need to be at that table. New grants should enable that involvement to happen. She points out that gender-based violence work tends to be filled with white faces who have white perspectives.
Morrison says the team is looking into developing a survivor advisory committee, doing surveys, and reaching out to specific community groups. “Everyone’s answer is going to be different about how the system is working for them,” she says.