In her first run for office in 1998, Amy Klobuchar embraced tough-on-crime measures that included harsher penalties for juvenile offenders, increasing conviction rates and expanding jails.
Klobuchar, running under the motto of “safe streets, real consequences,” made these issues the cornerstone of her campaign for Hennepin County Attorney. At the time, both Democrats and Republicans at the local and national level endorsed harsh punishments in the theory that it would deter future criminals.
Today, most Democrats, including Klobuchar, have distanced themselves from these policies, saying they were unnecessarily cruel and disproportionately harmed communities of color. Polls routinely show overwhelming public support for criminal justice reform, with a 2017 poll commissioned by the ACLU showing that 91% of Americans think the criminal justice system has problems that need fixing, and the majority of people in both parties supporting policies to reduce mandatory minimum sentencing and lower the prison population. Klobuchar voted for the First Step Act in 2018, an overwhelmingly bipartisan piece of criminal justice legislation which rolled back some tough-on-crime measures.
Earlier in the Democratic presidential primary, former Vice President Joe Biden and California Sen. Kamala Harris had to answer criticism from the progressive wing of the party for their tough-on-crime past — Biden for helping write the 1994 crime bill as a Delaware senator and Harris for her career as California’s attorney general and San Francisco district attorney.
Klobuchar’s own prosecutorial career has received some coverage, but records from her first political run for office show how she made tough-on-crime policies a key part of her rhetoric and campaign.
Klobuchar’s campaign released a statement to CNN, defending her role as county attorney.
“Amy Klobuchar ran on a community-oriented reform agenda for the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office. Her campaign focused on reducing gun violence and supporting anti-NRA gun safety reforms, supporting a drug court process that increased treatment and reduced drug use, and ensuring attorneys and personnel at the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office reflected the community’s diversity.”
In her presidential campaign, Klobuchar has talked about the need for changing the criminal justice system.
“There is racism in our criminal justice system and we need to take action to fight it,” Klobuchar wrote in an April op-ed for CNN, adding that “our criminal justice system cannot lose sight of the principles of fairness and compassion — for victims, yes, but also for offenders.”
“More Trials, More Conviction”
A CNN KFile review of Klobuchar’s public statements and campaign materials during her 1998 race shows she advocated for strict punishment for juvenile offenders.
“Kids who commit violent acts must be made to understand the harm they cause and must receive appropriate punishment,” Klobuchar wrote in a series of policy papers on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. “The response to violent crime must be particularly swift in juvenile cases. If we wait too long, the punishment attached to the crime will be lost on the juvenile as it will be too remote in time.”
She also said that she would try to get courts to try violent juvenile offenders as adults rather than children.
In her campaign, Klobuchar praised the “broken-windows theory” of policing which asserts that low-level property crime, such as vandalism and graffiti, leads to more serious violent crime by fostering an atmosphere of disorder which promotes criminality. The theory has been criticized for disproportionately impacting minority communities. The idea was conceived in the 1980s by social scientists, but became popular in the 1990s under then New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who embraced it and had the city’s police department enforce it, establishing a model that other high-crime cities and municipalities across the country also embraced.
“What I’ve heard again and again is that no crime is a small crime and that we must enforce the law down the line — as has been done so successfully in other parts of the country that have witnessed dramatic reductions in crime — in order to make the criminal justice system work for us,” Klobuchar wrote.
In one section of her archived website titled “Criminal Justice Reform,” Klobuchar argued for “more trials, more convictions,” and said that she would implement tougher plea negotiations between prosecutors and suspects. Klobuchar recognized that this would lead to significantly more criminal trials, which she encouraged.
“I would expect that the implementation of my tough plea negotiation standards will result in prosecutors trying more cases before juries. The average number of trials per year per lawyer should be at least two to three times the current average.”
Fewer opportunities for leniency
In a policy paper, Klobuchar wrote that she would “seek to hold judges more accountable by monitoring the sentences they impose.” Though she didn’t clarify how she would hold the judges accountable, criminal justice reform advocates argue that punishing judges for not dispensing harsh enough punishments leads to a chilling effect wherein harsh convictions become the only acceptable ruling. Klobuchar said she would also appeal lenient sentences.
In drug cases, Klobuchar wrote, minor offenders should get treatment, but adequate punishment. Still, she said, in many cases the drug offenders should be treated in prison, with the minor offenders getting second chances.
“If a defendant lands in court because of an addiction, that addiction should by all means be treated,” she wrote. “But if a defendant lands in court because of greed and drug dealing on our street corners for money, our response must be prison. In many instances, public safety requires that drug offenders get treated in prison rather than in the community at-large. Only minor offenders who earn it should be given a second chance.”
Klobuchar’s Republican opponent in the race was Sheryl Ramstad Hvass, who was previously a county judge.
Both Klobuchar and Hvass campaigned on tough-on-crime policies, though the Star Tribune newspaper endorsed Klobuchar because it said she had distinguished herself by emphasizing detail and clarity in her proposals, as well as her commitment to increase efficiency by eliminating bureaucratic barriers between departments.
Klobuchar narrowly won the election by less than 1%, and as county attorney she did more aggressively pursue non-violent crime such as graffiti, and drug cases, though she pursued some progressive measures as well, such as having prosecutors work more closely with local communities and worked with the Innocence Project to prevent wrongful convictions.
Klobuchar ran for reelection unopposed in 2002, before successfully running for Senate in 2006.