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Prosecutors caught between cost cutting and profiteering

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As suburban cities tighten their belts, they're looking to previously untouched areas to save money. 

The way local prosecutors handle cases can save money, and even make money for the cities they represent.

It's become a practice that is now more important to the bottom line.

Nearly all Hennepin County suburbs pay independent lawyers to be their city attorneys.

These attorneys prosecute cases like speeding, DUIs, theft, and domestic assault. Many of them have represented the same municipality for decades.

I've never tried to be the least expensive guy in the mix. I've tried to do the best job. Could someone do my job for 10 cents cheaper? I'm sure they could.

These suburban prosecutors took notice when Eden Prairie officials made the rare step of switching prosecutors. The city council chose not to renew a contract with their prosecutor of 17 years. 

They made the decision at a meeting last fall, when council members had five legal firms submit bids for prosecution services.

  They chose the lowest bid. 

At that meeting, Mayor Phil Young told the council he couldn't justify missing a chance to save at least $20,000.

"I don't know what I'd say to people on the street who said why'd you spend more money than you had to," Young said. "The reality is clients do change their lawyers on occasion. It is purely a business decision as far as I'm concerned."  

Council member Ron Case disagreed. "I would argue that it's not just a business decision," he said. At the meeting, Young reminded his colleagues that  their own staff and police department recommended staying with the same prosecutor. 

"As I've talked to police officers, I've heard arguments like different prosecutors in different cities have a different philosophy of who they prosecute, how they prosecute, when they prosecute," Case said. "In so many cases officers will take their time to drive down the courthouse only to have it not be prosecuted or even to arrest and find out the case was not prosecuted from the start of it."

But like nearly every other municipality in the state, Eden Prairie needs to conserve funds. Last year they laid off seven employees.

"It's an eye opener for everyone in my position and time will tell if they made the right decision or not," said attorney Steve Tallen.

Tallen's firm also bid for the Eden Prairie contract. Their bid came in $24,000 higher than the winning bid. He says their figure was based on the hours they knew the work would take. 

"I've never tried to be the least expensive guy in the mix," Tallen said. "I've tried to do the best job. Could someone do my job for 10 cents cheaper? I'm sure they could."

There are only two Hennepin County suburbs that employ full-time prosecutors. 

One of them is Minnetonka City Attorney Desyl Peterson, who says her staff serves the community better because it isn't judged on cost.

"If a prosecutor has to focus on how much this is costing the city, then they are, in fact, going to give cases away," Peterson said. "If you don't fight on a particular case, boy, that doesn't cost much at all. But is that justice? I don't think so."

Suburbs aren't just  trying to save money. Prosecutors can make money for cities they represent with fines and fees.

Cities especially make money from one kind of legal fee that goes entirely back to the city: prosecution costs. They come mainly from cases called "continuances for dismissal," when prosecutors agree to let a defendant go without a charge unless they commit another crime or violate specific conditions. In those cases, defendants are often ordered to pay prosecution costs. 

For the past few years, the law firm of Bonner and Borhart has made more money in prosecution costs for Edina than any other suburb in Hennepin County, nearly $400,000.  

It's become a selling point. Bonner and Borhart won Eden Prairie's contract, saying in its bid that it would increase the city's earnings from prosecution costs. 

The firm didn't respond to requests for comment.

Prosecutors usually agree to continuances for dismissal for low-level offenses where defendants don't have a record, or in cases where victims won't testify and prosecutors don't have a strong case. 

Kristi Strom was ready to testify but didn't get the chance. She's convinced the prosecutor in her case could have fought harder. 

"All he said was, 'Well, some cases are just tough. Some cases we just don't win,'" she said.

Strom's ex-boyfriend was charged with stalking and domestic assault after he threatened to shoot her in the head. The case got a continuance for dismissal.

In an email, prosecutor David Ross said he ran into "several evidentiary issues" in Strom's case and was forced to resolve it without a conviction. 

Ross says he was able to address Strom's concerns by securing a year-long, no-contact order against her ex-boyfriend.

"The next girl who might have enough courage to come forward, they might help her. She might get the end result that she's looking for," Strom said. "I didn't."

Strom doesn't know if the case against her ex-boyfriend should have ended in a continuance for dismissal, but there are lawyers and court observers who worry that more cases will end like hers if municipalities force the price of prosecution services lower and case workloads increase.