The half dozen people who hope to be the next Hennepin County Attorney all say that reducing violent crime and racial disparities in the criminal justice system are among their top priorities. After 24 years in the job, incumbent Mike Freeman is stepping down when his term ends in January.
Three women and three men vying to replace him all appeared at a Tuesday candidates forum sponsored by the American Constitution Society.
The Hennepin County attorney is among the more powerful of Minnesota’s elected officials. The office includes 214 attorneys plus other staff. It’s best known for prosecuting crimes ranging from drug dealing to murder. But attorneys there also handle civil commitments, child support cases, and lawsuits that involve the county.
Given the long tenure of the current Hennepin County Attorney, the candidates described how they would do things differently.
Saraswati Singh, an assistant Ramsey County attorney, said she’d focus less on drug offenses and more on violent crime.
“I would move prosecutors over from the drug unit to the violent crime unit. Why? Because those are some of the most serious cases in our system,” Singh said. “And it does something else. It addresses racial inequity. Where do we have some of the greatest inequities in our criminal justice system? It’s with drugs.”
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Police misconduct was another key topic last night. Former Hennepin County Chief Public Defender Mary Moriarty promised to set up a police accountability unit within the prosecutor’s office and ban untrustworthy officers from testifying in court.
“I’m going to create a do-not-call list of officers who’ve lied in court and engaged in patterns of abusive behavior. We are going to review video footage and partner with police leadership to address violations of law and policy. When officers commit crimes, we’ll charge people.”
Moriarty said she’d make any charging decisions involving police brutality herself, and not send them to other counties as has been the practice recently, and she would continue to collaborate with the state attorney general on any such cases.
Former Minneapolis City Council President Paul Ostrow said he’d revive the use of grand juries to make those decisions but would take steps to improve transparency.
Ostrow, a prosecutor in Anoka County, said Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison was wrong to add an additional manslaughter charge to the complaint against former Brooklyn Center officer Kimberly Potter, who shot Daunte Wright during a traffic stop last year.
“I may be alone up here in saying this, but I believe Officer Potter should not have been charged with first degree manslaughter. I do believe that that was a politically-charged decision. And none of us want to be prosecuted because of a political decision,” he said.
Ostrow — who said he’s pro-choice — stood alone among the candidates when he would not promise to rule out prosecuting abortion cases if the procedure were ever to be criminalized in Minnesota.
Moderator Tane Danger with the Theater of Public Policy and Westminster Town Hall Forum also asked the candidates how they’d work to reduce racial disparities in prosecutions and improve transparency.
Former Hennepin County judge Martha Holton Dimick praised the incumbent for his efforts to diversify the staff.
“I think that’s one of the strengths that Mike Freeman deserves credit for. He not only hires people of color, he retains them and he promotes them. People of color have been promoted, encouraged, and valued.”
Richfield City Council member Simon Trautmann, an attorney in private practice, said better use of data and putting more of it online will lead to more equitable treatment of defendants.
“Who gets bail and how much? We don’t have great information about the socioeconomic and gender and racial makeup of who gets what decisions. One way that the county attorney’s office can ensure that those decisions are made in ways that I think are in line with many of the county attorneys that are already there is to make that data public,” Trautmann said.
Minnesota DFL House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, also a candidate for Hennepin attorney, said he’d work with people inside and outside the office to address the root causes of disparities across society.
“If we want safe communities we have to have just communities, we have to have fair communities, we have to have equitable communities,” Winkler said. “And the only way to do that is to show up, listen, and try to find solutions. It might not be in the office, but there is a powerful role for a public prosecutor to demand a change in practices and resources across systems.”
Freeman is not the only top Twin Cities prosecutor leaving office. Dakota County’s James Backstrom stepped down last year because of health issues. Voters there, as well as in Washington and Anoka Counties will choose new county attorneys in November.