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Both candidates for Hennepin County attorney emphasize the need for fundamental changes in how the prosecutor’s office approaches crime. This photo shows the Hennepin County Government Center in downtown Minneapolis. (Staff photo)

Rethinking the role of prosecutors

Hennepin County attorney candidates Moriarty, Dimick join town hall

Rachel Moran

Rachel Moran

The Minnesota Justice Research Center on Oct. 14 held a Hennepin County attorney town hall titled “The Future of Prosecution.” Conducted virtually, the event brought together the county attorney candidates, community leaders, the formerly incarcerated, and survivors of crime to discuss how a prosecutor’s office should deal more effectively the trauma affecting both the victims and perpetrators of crime.

The conversation was introduced by Professor Rachel Moran of the University of St. Thomas School of Law. Moran is founder of the Criminal and Juvenile Defense Clinic at St. Thomas, and her scholarship focuses on police accountability and reform.

Moran’s presentation introduced the past “tough on crime” rhetoric that was echoed by prosecutors and subsequently bled into their policies. This attitude of being “tough on crime,” Moran said, directly contributed to the mass incarceration crisis in America. The prison population in America is five to nine times higher than in the United Kingdom, Italy or Germany, and 15 times higher than in Japan, Moran reported.

“Prosecutors are the frontline warriors in mass incarceration,” Moran said.

Moran also suggested that this attitude has pervaded communities who have pointed the finger at prosecutors’ offices for rising crime rates. There have been recall attempts for so-called “progressive prosecutors,” and one of these has been successful.

However, Moran said research supports the conclusion that progressive prosecutors have actually reduced crime because the process of going to jail or even the process of defending oneself has destabilized people.

Moran said that one of the top tasks facing the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office is deciding what role the office has on crime, particularly in reducing it. Specifically, the new Hennepin County attorney must first decide whether prosecutors even have a role in reducing recidivism. If so, she must decide how to handle punishment—whether to continue with the “tough on crime” policies or to turn attention to alternatives to traditional punishment, such as restorative justice and adult diversion programs.

Martha Holton Dimick

Martha Holton Dimick

County attorney candidate Martha Holton Dimick, a retired Hennepin County judge, spoke first, emphasizing the importance of early intervention with young people. Dimick said that prosecutors needed to be engaged in the middle schools and high schools. “We need to teach these children how to respect themselves and each other,” Dimick said. “We need to work together for what is in the best interest of the children.”

Dimick suggested that, aside from mentoring, there is inadequate treatment of children who do commit crimes. “We have a problem in the juvenile justice system with respect to what we do to these children who are committing crimes,” Dimick said. She cited the closure of the sole youth correctional facility (Hennepin County Home School), with no alternative in place, as being part of the problem. Instead, Dimick said that children were being sent to Red Wing, a more restrictive institution, or all the way to Utah. Dimick doubted that placing children in these locations would help address the problems. “We need to put youth in conversation with the community that we want them to reintegrate with,” Dimick avowed.

Mary Moriarty

Mary Moriarty

County attorney candidate Mary Moriarty emphasized an overall lack of understanding of the trauma surrounding both victims and perpetrators of crime, saying bluntly, “The system is not good at understanding trauma, at all.”

Moriarty, the county’s former chief public defender, said that this stemmed from a false dichotomy of victims on the one hand and perpetrators on the other, where victims are considered pristine and unable to be perpetrators, which Moriarty said is clearly false. She also went so far as to say that prosecutors were aware this false dichotomy, as well as factors such as the effects of substance abuse on crime or incomplete formation of the adolescent brain — and yet willfully ignored the research in order to promote “tough on crime policies.”

“We need to acknowledge the damage done intentionally with the system,” Moriarty said. Instead, Moriarty proposed a “public health approach” to violent crime.

She also stressed the emotional toll that the system can have on people who have committed offenses, even if they are not in jail. Minnesota, Moriarty said, has been incorrectly perceived as being less punitive as other states for having one of the highest numbers of people on probation, instead of in prison, in the country.

“What people do not realize is how onerous being on probation is,” Moriarty declared. “The stress and trauma of knowing a probation officer can get a warrant for your arrest and take you away from your job and family is incredibly difficult.”

Further debates between the candidates will continue to highlight differences in approach, but both candidates emphasized the need for the next Hennepin County attorney to make some fundamental changes to how the office handles approaches to crime. The race concludes on Nov. 8 with the general election.


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