One hundred guests tuned in on May 5, 2022 to an online forum of candidates vying for the Hennepin County Attorney seat being vacated by Mike Freeman.
Hosted by the Minnesota Justice Research Center and Minneapolis Foundation, the forum offered a glimpse into as how county attorney candidates would address racial inequities, police accountability, case backlog and other issues plaguing the criminal justice system in Hennepin County.
Six candidates participated, including former District Judge Martha Holton Dimick, former chief public defender Mary Moriarty, lawyer and former Minneapolis City Council member Paul Ostrow, Ramsey County prosecutor Saraswati Singh, lawyer and Richfield City Council member Simon Trautmann, and Minnesota House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler. A seventh candidate, lawyer Jarvis Jones, entered the race the same day as the forum and did not participate. On May 20, Trautmann announced he was leaving the race.
The first question asked about the county attorney’s responsibility in mitigating racial disparities in the criminal justice and child protection systems.
“Those inequities, that’s injustice. And the Hennepin County Attorney’s job, the prosecutor’s job, is to do justice. That is our one job,” said Singh. She would hire people of different races, genders, socioeconomic classes and ability status from across the county. “It’s important that the people working on these cases understand the people that we deal with in these cases. And understand that they’re us. They’re not other.”
Dimick said cases are charged based on facts and law, not race, religion or sexual orientation. She acknowledged there are implicit biases and suggested educating all Hennepin County attorneys on implicit bias.
Moriarty pointed out that the county attorney’s office already had implicit bias training and was there when they did it. She advocated for measuring and tracking implicit bias by reviewing the subjective decisions made by the county attorney – who to charge, who not to charge, whether to offer bail – collecting data and implementing policies to make sure White people aren’t given better offers than Black people. She also shared her work as head of the Hennepin County public defender’s office to put a stop to a downtown marijuana sting by the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) that was unfairly targeting Black people and collected data on traffic stops that revealed similar disparities.
Addressing violent crime
Winkler said an all-hands-on-deck approach was needed to address violent crime and encouraged the type of collaboration seen with the Minnesota State Patrol and the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to assist Minneapolis. He would also call on suburban police departments to help investigate crime.
“The data shows the #1 deterrent for crime is not the severity of a sentence, it is the likelihood that a person will be arrested and face some consequence,” he said. “The consequence needs to be proportionate, it needs to be geared towards rehabilitation, but there has to be a response to violent crime in the community.”
Trautmann said it’s important to acknowledge the current backlog in cases. Speeding up the initial hearings and arraignments and getting young adults into services would help disrupt patterns of violence sooner, lessening the likelihood that they would become repeat offenders. Like most of the candidates, Trautmann said he would pull attorneys from less critical crimes – drug crimes – and put those resources toward handling violent crimes.
Ostrow called the sale of fentanyl a violent crime and urged passage of legislation that would make penalties for its sale the same as they are for heroin. He also said downtown business leaders and community members are tired of “catch and release” – the same people getting arrested over and over for committing serious crimes.
“This is a small number of people that are doing great damage,” he said.
Dimick described herself as an African American woman with African American neighbors whom she talks to about what they‘d like to see in their north Minneapolis neighborhood. She spoke of the increase in homicides there.
“We’re talking about people who have seen their father, brother, sister, their nieces and nephews, their children and their babies caught in the crossfire and killed,” she said. “In one weekend, several blocks from where I live, there were four homicides. These are serious crimes. This has got to stop.”
Department of Human Rights findings
Candidates were asked about the role of the county attorney in addressing mistrust community members have with the Minneapolis Police Department. Singh said the report was consistent with her personal life, as well as her professional experience. She recalled being dismissed by her boss in the Attorney General’s office when raising concerns about misconduct, then taking her concern to someone else only to see the police officer promoted. By contrast, when encountering a similar situation in Ramsey County, they held the person accountable and changed the rules so the person was documented and monitored.
“These issues are so real. It’s important for the top prosecutor of Hennepin County to talk about them to change the culture so whenever something like that happens it goes all the way to the top,” said Singh.
Trautmann said it was important that the government is speaking in such clear terms that race-based policing exists in Minneapolis, and that more than a dozen officers voluntarily participating was an “important transformation.” He would establish an “office of procedural integrity” to help bring what he called “deep structural change.”
Dimick described an incident when a police officer wanted to charge a person with felony assault. According to Dimick, the officer had a “scratch,” but when she looked at the booking photo she saw that the officer “beat the daylights out of” the would-be defendant. Dimick wouldn’t hear the case, but said she took “the chicken’s way out” by telling the officer it was because his scratch would be gone by the time the case got to trial.
Moriarty said this was an example of looking the other way, and would instead show police leadership violations of the policy. Furthermore, she would not call as witnesses any police officers who have lied under oath or engaged in abusive behavior.
Because prosecutors work with police officers on a daily basis, Winkler called for an independent internal police accountability unit within Hennepin County and a process for referring charging decisions about police killings outside of the county.
“I think that it is too much of a conflict of interest for the county attorney to make those decisions internally,” he said. A clear process that is followed would enable people to understand that “a referral to another county or to the attorney general is made according to a set process and not political reasons.”
Candidates generally agreed on expunging criminal records to minimize “collateral consequences” – barriers to housing, employment, education – that can occur for people with criminal records.
Ostrow pushed for passage of the Clean Slate Act, which, if passed, would automate some expungements.
“The business community supports it very strongly. They see it as an issue of human capital,” Ostrow said.
Winkler said untreated mental health and substance use disorders are often a product of unaddressed trauma, and moving them through the system only repeats the trauma. He said the criminal justice system, through diversion, restorative justice and harm reduction, can serve as an intervention to help people find a path out.
“The criminal justice system should be an opportunity for people to turn things around, not hold them back for the rest of their lives,” said Winkler.
Moriarty referred to expungement as a “tail-end thing” that wouldn’t stop violent crime. She would make restorative justice an option for youth between ages 16-26 for some violent offenses (not sexual or domestic assault). It would be used if the person who was harmed agreed to participate as a way to bring “meaningful accountability” – a means to repair damage done – instead of punishment.
Singh said restorative justice is the future of prosecution. She is also a big fan of pre-charge diversion, which can keep a criminal record off of someone. It works by identifying key areas they need to address, and they address them.
“If they don’t, we can charge them,” said Singh.
Candidates were asked about areas of work underutilized by the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office (HCAO).
Winkler said the county can play a significant role in environmental protection by enforcing permits and backing up local units of government in their enforcement. He said the HCAO can also lead the way in enforcing laws on labor trafficking, wage theft, and other ways workers are exploited.
“We have people who are exploited daily across the county in many industries based on their inability to protect their own rights in the workplace,” said Winkler.
Moriarty and Singh spoke of the need to consider the impacts on immigrants in decision making. Singh described a scenario where parents were deported, but their American kids, who are minors, were still here and now must be brought into the system.
Dimick felt building a more solid foundation with the police department so people could feel comfortable reporting crimes would be “an added plus.”
Trautmann proposed a prison to labor pipeline.
“We have a labor shortage, and we have a surplus of labor that’s sitting on the sidelines,” said Trautmann. “It’s good for public safety, it’s good for economic development, and it’s incredibly powerful for our state.”
All candidates but Ostrow were seeking DFL endorsement, which Mary Moriarty earned at the convention on May 14. The non-partisan primary will be Aug. 9, 2022, after which just two candidates will advance to the November ballot.
More information on the Minnesota Justice Research Center is at mnjrc.org.
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