If you plan to commit a crime in Minnesota, you might want to steer clear of Polk County. The county of 32,000, which hugs the Red River on the North Dakota border, is sparsely populated and largely agricultural, save for East Grand Forks, Crookston and a handful of other small cities set among soybean, wheat and sugar beet fields. Yet in 2014 it sent more people to prison, per capita, than any other county in Minnesota, an analysis of National Corrections Reporting Program data by the New York Times and Fordham University found.
With 50 prison admissions per 10,000 residents, Polk County stands out among Minnesota counties, and, indeed, the entire Upper Midwest.
The 2014 figure is an increase from 22 per 10,000 residents in 2006 and 39 per 10,000 residents in 2013, among the highest in Minnesota both years. Ask Polk County officials what's behind the high rate of imprisonment, and they'll likely have an answer for you: drugs.
While for the most part crime and arrest rates were stable between 2006 and 2014 in Polk County, drug crimes are a big exception. Drug crimes went from a rate of 38.6 per 10,000 residents in 2006 to 61.9 per 10,000 residents in 2014.
Polk County is in an area of the state hard hit by the opioid epidemic.
Beltrami County, home to Bemidji, also has high drug crime and arrest rates. But in 2014, it had a prison admission rate of 32 per 10,000 residents - higher than the Twin Cities', but not as high as Polk County. In Clay County, home of Moorhead and a countywide population of 61,000, drug arrests ticked up noticeably from 2013 to 2014: 28 per 10,000 residents to 40 per 10,000 residents. Prison admissions increased by 2.5 per 10,000 residents, to about 22. Last month, the Polk County attorney's office filed paperwork to charge three men accused of trafficking pills containing fentanyl, a synthetic opioid several times more potent than heroin, with a punishment harsher than the state's recommendations. Such a departure from the guidelines is not as unusual in Polk County as it is elsewhere. In Polk County, 14 percent of felony drug offenders between 2006 and 2015 received "aggravated dispositional departures" - usually prison instead of the probation called for in the sentencing guidelines. In Beltrami and Clay counties, 6 percent and 8 percent did, respectively. Statewide, fewer than 9 percent of felony drug offenders for whom the sentencing guidelines prescribe probation receive prison. Kelly Lyn Mitchell, the executive director of the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice and the former executive director of the Sentencing Guidelines Commission, was surprised by the rate of such departures. "It does tend to indicate that there's maybe a little bit of a cultural difference going on within that county..." she said. Kip Fontaine, assistant public defender for the Ninth Judicial District, which covers 17 counties in northern Minnesota, including Polk, says he sees evidence of a different norm. He's noticed what seems to be a disproportionate number of third-degree charges for drug possession in a school zone or park. A person, say, found to be driving through one of these areas with drugs on them would, in most counties, be charged with this crime in the fifth-degree, a lesser charge, Fontaine said. Not necessarily in Polk.
Andrew Larson, the executive director of Tri-County Community Corrections, the government agency that provides probation and detention services in Polk, Red Lake and Norman counties, said he senses a difference in philosophy in Polk County, too. "The Polk County attorney's office is just more aggressive in their prosecution than perhaps what the other counties are, and it's literally that simple," Larson said. "It's not a matter of one being right or the other being wrong, it's just a difference." Longtime Polk County Attorney Greg Widseth does not deny the characterization of his office as aggressive. "I wouldn't ... tell you that I think we're not a tough prosecution," Widseth said. There are a couple factors at play that don't appear in the data. First, Widseth said the recent increase in drug problems is alarming. These days, Widseth said, his office seems to be working on a drug complaint every business day.
Another reason Polk County might have high prison admissions, several interviewees said, is geography. Technically, the Red River and a state line separate East Grand Forks, the biggest city in Polk County, from Grand Forks, N.D., whose population is larger than all of Polk County. But the river is easily traversed by bridge, so the population of Polk County is bigger than it appears when you include the many people who cross into it from North Dakota on a daily basis, some of whom commit crimes. But that same logic should apply to Clay County, whose largest city, Moorhead, is divided from the much larger Fargo by the same Red River. But in Clay County, the prison admissions rate in 2014 was less than half of that in Polk. Widseth simply says the prosecutor's office charges what law enforcement brings to them.
"I try to hold people accountable for their conduct," Widseth said.
Here is a list showing how many prisoners were admitted per 10,000 population in each Minnesota county during 2014 (N/A means information not available): Aitkin County, 22 Anoka County, 8 Becker County, 27 Beltrami County, 32 Benton County, 18 Big Stone County, N/A Blue Earth County, 16 Brown County, 6 Carlton County, 18 Carver County, 3 Cass County, 29 Chippewa County, 12 Chisago County, 11 Clay County, 22 Clearwater County, 30 Cook County, N/A Cottonwood County, 17 Crow Wing County, 19 Dakota County, 8 Dodge County, 13 Douglas County, 14 Faribault County, 15 Fillmore County, 5 Freeborn County, 18 Goodhue County, 11 Grant County, 13 Hennepin County, 12 Houston County, 7 Hubbard County, 16 Isanti County, 13 Itasca County, 30 Jackson County, 13 Kanabec County, 16 Kandiyohi County, 21 Kittson County, NA Koochiching County, 15 Lac qui Parle County, 13 Lake County, 12 Lake of the Woods County, 15 Le Sueur County, 6 Lincoln County, 10 Lyon County, 18 Mahnomen County, 16 Marshall County, 40 Martin County, 25 McLeod County, 14 Meeker County, 12 Mille Lacs County, 37 Morrison County, 17 Mower County, 32 Murray County, N/A Nicollet County, 8 Nobles County, 11 Norman County, 23 Olmsted County, 15 Otter Tail County, 10 Pennington County, 9 Pine County, 14 Pipestone County, 6 Polk County, 50 Pope County, 10 Ramsey County, 19 Red Lake County, 17 Redwood County, 28 Renville County, 9 Rice County, 6 Rock County, N/A Roseau County, 20 Scott County, 14 Sherburne County, 11 Sibley County, 10 St. Louis County, 21 Stearns County, 18 Steele County, 12 Stevens County, 9 Swift County, 8 Todd County, 11 Traverse County, 18 Wabasha County, 7 Wadena County, 19 Waseca County, 7 Washington County, 8 Watonwan County, 17 Wilkin County, 14 Winona County, 11 Wright County, 9 Yellow Medicine County, 19 Source: National Corrections Reporting Program, compiled by Josh Keller and Adam Pearce of the New York Times, with assistance from John Pfaff of Fordham University