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Tonya Cooper
Tonya Cooper

2021 Unsung Legal Heroes: Tonya Cooper

Legal assistant Tonya Cooper wears a number of hats at the St. Paul City Attorney’s Office.

Working in the Criminal Division, Cooper is the legal assistant for the Community Justice Unit (CJU), which is dedicated to addressing the racial and economic inequities in the criminal legal system. In that role, she coordinates a lot of the nontraditional prosecution work being done through the CJU, including a growing diversion program and ETHOS, a newer program based on the principals of restorative justice principles.

Part of Cooper’s work with ETHOS is to reach out to victims and potential participants to discuss their rights and their nontraditional opportunities for justice.

“I love being able to help people,” she said. “The people I meet are often there during a hard time in their lives.”
In addition to her direct work with program participants, Tonya coordinates with community partners, works with CJU attorneys to prepare and file stipulated expungement motions and other legal documents, collects and compiles evaluations and program data and gathers discovery materials.

A native of North Carolina, Cooper became interested in paralegal work after she attended high school.

“I looked into a paralegal program at a community college nearby,” she said. “I was impressed with the work they do.”

In the ETHOS program, eligible cases are removed from the traditional court process and referred to a community centered conversation called a Circle. During an ETHOS Circle, volunteer community members, trained facilitators called Circle Keepers, and the defendant engage to understand the true impact of an offense before working together to create a unique plan for the defendant to repair any harm they caused.

“I think restorative justice programs and diversion programs are becoming more important,” said Cooper. “They can be a valuable option for our office.”

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