As Senator Amy Klobuchar basks in the spotlight of the New York Times’ surprising split endorsement of her and fellow Senator Elizabeth Warren for the Democratic presidential nomination, drug-policy reformers have questions about the Minnesota Senator’s record as a county prosecutor and two-term Congresswoman.
The Times' assessment – “given the polarization in Washington and beyond, the nest chance to enact many progressive plans could be under a Klobuchar administration - appears to be wishful thinking – appears to be wishful thinking and not quite accurate.
Klobuchar was elected Country Attorney for Minnesota's Hennepin County in 1998 and won reelection in 2002. As county attorney, she was the top law enforcement officer and lead prosecutor for the largest county in Minnesota, which includes Minneapolis. She served in that position until getting elected to the Senate in 2006.
While Klobuchar has campaigned as a “tough on crime” candidate, unfortunately she wasn’t so law and order as Hennepin County Attorney when it came to police officers accused of brutality and killing innocent civilians on her watch.
According to Minnesota Public Radio, “[Klobuchar] has faced criticism from some African-American activists for not charging police in any officer-involved shooting during her tenure. Police shot and killed 25 people, and four others died in custody while Klobuchar was the county's lead prosecutor from 1999 to 2007.”
During her tenure as country prosecutor, MPR added, “Minneapolis paid $4.8 million in legal settlements related to 122 police misconduct incidents. And police officers and county sheriffs were involved in 29 civilian deaths.”
The Vera Institute of Justice says prison admissions for African-Americans were 22% higher than for whites in Hennepin County during her last year in office (2005).
The Case of Myron Burrell
Myon Burrell was 16 when he was arrested, tried and convicted for allegedly participating in a drive-by shooting that resulted in the death of an 11-year-old girl in 2002
There was no ballistic evidence. The gun was never found. There was no fingerprint or DNA evidence. The only witness was the probable target, who was 120 feet away and escaped. A reasonable person would have said there wasn’t a case, but not Hennepin County Attorney Klobuchar.
Jurors say that Burrell’s lawyer seemed inexperienced and out of his depth. Burrell tried to argue on appeal that he had been provided with ineffective counsel, but that claim was denied. Klobuchar won the conviction and Burrell was sentenced to life plus 12 months.
Leaving aside the question of whether a life sentence is appropriate for a juvenile – it’s not – the big problem for Klobuchar is that Burrell may be innocent.
The victim’s own stepfather believes that Burrell was railroaded. The foreman of the jury has stated that he regrets voting to convict and has told the press that "we were misled.” His co-defendants say that Burrell wasn’t even with them and one of them even admitted to lying to police in his initial statement. There’s no evidence tying Burrell to the murder other than the only witness who was also the intended target, Timothy Oliver, who was killed in 2004.
So far, however, Klobuchar remains unmoved. On January 28, when the Minneapolis NAACP and other groups in Minnesota were issuing a statement calling for the Senator to suspend her presidential campaign, Klobuchar left DC and the impeachment trial to fly to Iowa to attend a campaign event.
Klobuchar on Criminal Justice
In 2010, Klobuchar was given the National Narcotics Officers Association Coalition’s Outstanding Member of Congress Award.
As a senator, Klobuchar’s criminal justice record has been middle of the road at best. American Public Media reported that “her legislative record today regarding criminal justice matters could be interpreted as an extension of her past: It shows little leadership on efforts to make the criminal justice system fairer. Of the remaining U.S. senators running for president (Senator Bernie Sanders is the other), Klobuchar has introduced the fewest criminal-justice reform bills since the protests over a police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, an alarming event that sparked a nationwide focus on police accountability.”
Nekima Levy Armstrong, a lawyer and former president of the Minneapolis NAACP, stated: “It gives me pause in thinking about her potentially becoming the next president of the United States. It’s important for someone like Amy Klobuchar to acknowledge the mistakes that she made and the harm that she caused and to make amends.”
Klobuchar is not much better when it comes to drug policy. In 2010, she was given the National Narcotics Officers Association Coalition’s Outstanding Member of Congress Award. Klobuchar has signed on as a co-sponsor of a few marijuana reform measures, including the STATES Act, but she hasn’t been a lead sponsor of any. More importantly, she’s not a co-sponsor of expansive reform measures like the Marijuana Justice Act and the MORE Act.
Klobuchar has pushed for prescription drug monitoring programs in spite of limited evidence of their effectiveness. She’s also a proponent of drug courts and has sponsored legislation to expand them, although many criminal-justice reformers and policy experts now view them as unsuccessful.
Perversely, drug courts may have spurred an increase in low-level drug arrests – a process known as “net widening.” Drug courts also worsen the divide between haves and have nots in regard to treatment access. This is called “cherry-picking” by which people selected to participate in drug court are those without a real drug problem. Programs can have amazing success rates for treatment when the patients are mostly middle-class white teens with good lawyers and don't really have substance-use disorders. Meanwhile, people with actual substance-use disorders, who really need treatment, get put on waiting lists and have to fend for themselves.
Klobuchar has signed on as a co-sponsor of a few marijuana reform measures, including the STATES Act, but she hasn’t been a lead sponsor of any.
Kamala Harris, who dropped out of the race in December, was heavily criticized for her career as a prosecutor. Some of it was legitimate, a lot of it wasn’t. Harris was even berated for speaking out about the need for criminal-justice reforms because she hadn’t said those things when she was still a prosecutor.
Klobuchar, on the other hand, has so far skated through this campaign with only a few critical examinations of her record, which haven’t really caught traction. That double standard says a lot about the Democratic Party and about American politics in general.
For some reason, the senator from Minnesota has not been asked by media whether she favors legalization like Warren, Sanders and former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Peter Buttigieg, or decriminalization like former Vice President Joe Biden. It’s also unclear if has ever used marijuana.
Criminal justice and drug reform are not disccussed as "issues" at Klobuchar's campaign website. CelebStoner has made a request for drug arrest statistics while she was country prosecutor.
Following her fifth-place finish in the botched Iowa caususes, Klobuchar is still lagging behind in national polls. According to fivethirtyeight.com, Biden (26.7%) leads the Democratic pack, followed by Sanders (22.2%), Warren (14.6%), Michael Bloomberg (8.6%), Buttigieg (6.9%), Andrew Yang (4%), Klobuchar (3.5%), Tom Steyer (2.1%) and Tulsi Gabbard (1.3%).