Meet the Candidate: Ryan Winkler runs for Hennepin County Attorney

Hennepin County Attorney Candidate Forum
Minnesota House Representative Ryan Winkler responds to a question during a discussion forum for candidates running to be the next Hennepin County Attorney in downtown Minneapolis Minneapolis on Tuesday, March 29, 2022.
Tim Evans | MPR News

For the first time in 24 years, voters in Hennepin County are voting for a new county attorney. That may seem like a sleepily race no one cares about. But this person has a huge impact on a lot of people’s lives.

They are the final word on who is charged with a crime, what crime and how sentence is recommended. They also have a hand in protecting elders from fraud and cases that involve child protection.

Mike Freeman has been in the job for 24 years. He is not seeking re-election.

There are a record seven candidates running for office and Cathy Wurzer is talking to every single one of them. Here, Ryan Winkler speaks with Cathy Wurzer. He is currently the house majority leader and lives in Golden Valley.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

INTERVIEWER: For the first time in 24 years, voters in Hennepin County will choose a new county attorney. That person holds a key job. The county attorney's office oversees adult and juvenile criminal cases, child protection cases, and defends the county in other legal matters. The office has a $65 million budget and a staff of about 460. There are a record seven candidates running for that office, and we're talking to every one of them before the August 9th primary.

Today, Jarvis Jones joins us. Mr. Jones is an attorney who lives in Edina. He's on the line. Thanks for joining us.

JARVIS JONES: Thank you for having me.

INTERVIEWER: Now Mr. Jones, after a 30-year career as a lawyer, mainly in corporate and business settings, and I know you have executive management expertise, what experience with public safety in criminal law do you bring to the job?

JARVIS JONES: That is not-- as you correctly noticed, that is not my background. And many of my-- the folks running against me, they've been practicing in the criminal law for 20, 30, 40 years. But I'll suggest to your audience one simple question, are we happy with the way things are today? Has anything changed in the last 20 to 40 years? And if they think they have, they have not as far as safe streets, which my candidacy is about safe streets in all neighborhoods, including Minneapolis.

It's about treating people fairly and with dignity in all neighborhoods, including Minneapolis. And the third leg of my campaign is that we need to reform the criminal justice system and reduce the mass footprint-- or the footprint of mass incarceration. So what do you bring to the table, Jarvis, is what I hear. I've always been one to make cultural changes. We need to make cultural, systemic, and organizational changes. As change agent, that's something I do.

I'm also a bridge builder to make fundamental-- to reach out to people of color and the broader community, non-people of color to bring us together so we can start resolving some of the problems. And so as a change agent/bridge builder, that's what I bring. We need someone from outside the system. The folks inside the system, politicians, judges who call balls and strikes.

And we don't need a second public defender. We already have a public defender. So I bring fresh eyes, someone willing to make the changes necessary.

INTERVIEWER: Mr. Jones, you mentioned safe streets as being one of the tenets of your campaign. And in an interview with the "Sahan Journal," you said, "There are some folks who say lock them up. That's not the solution. Some people believe in spending more money. That's not the solution." Now you described yourself as a change agent. What are the changes needed to battle rising crime if not a blend of those two solutions?

JARVIS JONES: I am misquoted there. I said locking them up alone is not going to resolve it. I said spending money alone is not going to resolve it. So to get what completely I said, both have a place, both. There will be no one. As far as locking up, I don't say lock up. As an African-American, when we hear lock them up, we know historically and presently, that means locking up disproportionately African-American men and women for the same crime committed by people who have less pigment in their skin or less melanin in their skin.

I'm for spending money. But that's not going to resolve it. We spent lots of money locking people up and lots of money on social programs. This is how-- we need to do both. Lock folks up. One of my pledges is we're going to take back our streets, our neighborhoods, and the downtown area. And at the same time, we're going to treat people with dignity and respect. How we get there, though, is we need someone who could be in those troubled communities-- diverse and troubled communities.

And we do need someone who look like them to rebuild that trust in those communities. Prosecutor-- I grew up in Chicago. It's a false belief. If we think we're just going to spend our way out of this alone or lock everyone up, we need someone who's going to live in that community on a weekly basis. My first child is going to be a community engagement liaison to work in these communities.

I'm going to be in these communities on a weekly basis. My first three six months, I'm doing a listening tour in all of these communities, all communities.

INTERVIEWER: Let's talk about the young folks who are involved in the criminal justice system. Now, I know you've said you feel that young people under 18 are being over-criminalized for minor offenses. But shouldn't actions have consequences because small offenses can turn into more serious ones?

JARVIS JONES: My position on young people is pretty straightforward. What I said is we over-criminalize for non-violent, low-level minor offenses, marijuana, for example. We over-criminalize the homeless people who have addictions, mental health issues. This is my message. If you read-- you look at different things I said out there, it's very clear. One, I don't believe we put everyone, these 14/12-year-olds, and treat them like adults. Their minds aren't still developed.

However, the juvenile system is outdated. For many of these young people, they believe it's a day camp. And they're told that by certain people who abuse them. We should have stiffer sentences for those who use our young people to commit crime and for the young people who decide to commit violent crimes, carjacking. Even I consider assault if it's serious.

If someone gets beat up, I consider it as hurt. It's assault. We need to reform the juvenile system where they don't just get out after 18 or when they reach a certain age. It's not that they stay in the juvenile system, but their record isn't clear unless they've shown they're going to be accountable going forward, whether that's a year or two. So I'm going to work with the key stakeholders, including the politicians to reform the justice system.

So it's not day camp, and they have more accountability. I'm saying for violent offenses, not for nonviolent offenses. I believe in more diversion programs for the youth.

INTERVIEWER: Let me ask you about something, of course, that's been quite controversial recently in the Hennepin County attorney's office, actually more than recently, the past few years. Of course, I'm talking about police shootings of civilians. Mike Freeman got away from using grand juries as he looked at officer-involved shootings. How do you deal with police-involved shootings if you're Hennepin County attorney?

JARVIS JONES: OK, two messages-- two, three messages, I'll try to be more succinct. I'm now a politician. I don't have 15 seconds sound bites, unfortunately. One-- I mean, step one, I think overwhelmingly, the majority of police officers want to do a good job, keep us safe and going, go home safely to their family. My brother and sister are first-generation Chicago police officers in the inner city where I grew up.

So I have great respect for police officers. But the overwhelming, we call it 90%, 95%, 98%. The problem with the police department is a cultural problem. It starts at the top, not just these officers. There's a mentality that allows the bad police, let's say, 5%, 10%, 2%, I don't care, to violate their responsibility. And the other 95% police officers, on the street, there's something called "Don't snitch."

Well, a police officer has the same mentality. It's called the blue wall. So that's one problem. So what am I going to do? I mean, putting in place an internal independent investigation unit of senior attorneys who are managing line attorneys. These senior attorneys, we're going to investigate anyone acting under the collar law who violate their oath to the Hennepin County residents.

That includes law enforcement, that includes prosecutors, that include public defenders or judiciary, who-- if there's credible evidence to show they did not follow their oath. So one, I'm going to hold them accountable. I don't think anyone should be above the law. But again, I want to say overwhelmingly, majority of them, I think, try to do a good job for us.

So that's one thing I'm going to do. I'm going to put in this independent investigation unit to investigate, not just law enforcement, but anyone acting under the collar law in the criminal justice system. Secondly, I want to make sure you get your second questioning with a grand jury. I think that's a cop out. We will not be-- I think there's a few cops outs. I know Keith Ellison well, good man. We will not be referring cases to Keith Ellison. That's my job to take the arrows and slings from the community.

When I rule in favor of police officer, you always make someone happy. So I don't believe we should be using a grand jury for misconduct by police. We don't need a special grand jury to look at the Chauvin, the other cases to determine if the police had violated the law. And so I will not be using a grand jury. Also, I'm going to stop the practice of keeping people's color off in these juries because of the pigment in their skin.

The prosecutor in my office is going to have to have a reason for taking people's color off the jury other than the color of their skin. If they've got a reasonable basis, they can explain it. Then they do it with me. But they're going to have to have an explanation.

INTERVIEWER: At the beginning of our conversation, we talked a little bit about your legal experience. So I'm going to finish our conversation with this question, why do you want this job?

JARVIS JONES: I've been a bridge builder all my life in the legal community. But it's been on the civic side. I was twice elected president of the Minnesota Minority Lawyers Association. I became the first African-American president of the Hennepin County Bar Association. I became the first and only present to this day of the Minnesota State Bar Association of 28,000 lawyers. I'm doing it because I'm tired of reading headlines about our streets are unsafe.

I'm tired of reading headlines, the human rights department comes out with rampant racial disparity. And people acting like these politicians, these judges, people in the criminal justice system talking about a lot of people that I'm running, they get-- they're shocked. They're surprised. I've been hearing about the same issue for 30 years. And what my message is to your audience, don't expect something different by electing criminal insiders, people who've been in the system for 20 or 30 years.

We need someone who's going to come in with fresh eyes and willing to make fundamental changes and work with all the key stakeholders, law enforcement, the public defender's office, the judges, and probation officers in bringing people together. And if you go to jarvisjonesforhennepin.com, look on the highlights. On my website, you'll see I've been doing that for 30 years. Now we're going to make some changes on the criminal side.

INTERVIEWER: Well, I'd tell you what, Mr. Jones, it's been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much.

JARVIS JONES: And thank you for this opportunity. And I really do appreciate it.

INTERVIEWER: That was Jarvis Jones, a candidate for Hennepin County attorney. As you heard in our interview, Jones said he was misquoted a few times. You can go to sahanjournal.com and read what he had to say there. Early voting in this race is happening right now.

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