The Most Powerful Person in the Criminal Justice System
County attorneys are powerful elected officials. So why don’t more people know about them?
The Role of
County attorneys are among the most powerful people in the criminal justice system. County attorneys, often referred to as district attorneys in other states, decide who gets criminal charges filed against them, the severity of those charges, or if charges get filed at all.
They play a huge role in mass incarceration, unequal bail practices, and how to hold police accountable for any discriminatory behavior.
They are elected officials.
There are 87 counties in Minnesota and county attorneys are up for re-election every four years. But more often than not, these races go uncontested.
In Minnesota, county attorneys are responsible for prosecuting all felony convictions. County attorneys may also prosecute certain gross misdemeanors, depending on the county. They can also choose to send individuals to diversion programs, or recommend a lesser charge and refer to the city attorney’s office.
County attorneys often run on “tough-on-crime” platforms—but they can also be agents for change. They can reduce incarceration rates, address racial disparities in prosecution, and push for bail reform and other criminal justice reforms. But community members need to demand reform.
The best way to demand reform? Vote!
Below are examples of decisions your county attorney faces every day.
A veteran who served time in Iraq and Afghanistan and has been diagnosed with PTSD has been struggling with alcohol abuse. He has had a few instances on his record of public intoxication and driving while intoxicated. He is arrested for a DWI. Do you:
Outcome: Upon release from prison, he would have a felony on his record—making it difficult to obtain a job and receive public assistance. His underlying PTSD and drug use would not only have gone untreated, but would have been exacerbated due to the stress of prison. His disconnection from community would make re-entry difficult. He would struggle with homelessness, PTSD, and alcoholism, increasing his likelihood for recidivism.
Outcome: The veteran would participate in a 12-18 month program where he would receive one-on-one judicial supervision, as well as substance abuse and mental health treatment. He would receive a peer mentor to help guide him through the veteran’s court process, increasing the likelihood for successful treatment. Upon successful treatment, either his case could be dismissed or his charges reduced. He would be connected to employment and skills training assistance and temporary housing.
A 16-year-old who has been in and out of foster homes and struggling in school was arrested for robbing a gas station. He has no prior record. Do you:
Outcome: This teenager would be 36-years-old when he is released from prison. He would not have finished high school and would have a felony on his record—making it difficult to obtain a job and receive public assistance. These difficulties impact the likelihood for recidivism.
Outcome: This teenager would participate in a short-term program with different classes and community service programs. He would have a case manager to connect him with resources. When he successfully completes the diversion program, he will have more connection to the community and opportunities that uplift him out of poverty.
A 30-year-old who has struggled off-and-on with an opioid addiction, and has several related misdemeanor drug offenses convictions on her record, recently relapsed following a job loss and was arrested for possession of a large amount of opioids. Do you:
Outcome: When this woman is released from prison, she will be 60-years-old. She will be out of the workforce for over 30 years and have a felony record—making it difficult for her to find work and integrate back in her community. She will not be connected to community resources to help her with her opioid addiction once released.
Outcome: This woman would go into a 1-2 year program that includes long-term treatment, intensive monitoring from the court, and community supervision. In addition to receiving support for her opioid addition, she would be connected with resources and community, both important factors in being able to follow through with her treatment. Her case manager can help her get connected to a vocational training program and help with job placement.
A 22-year-old had a mental health crisis at a public grocery store. Before mental health mobile crisis units were able to de-escalate his conduct, he threw several canned goods that resulted in damage to the cans and minor injury to a bystander's toe. Do you:
Outcome: When this man is released from prison, he would be 27-years-old. He would have a felony on his record—making it difficult to obtain a job and receive public assistance. His underlying mental illness would not only have gone untreated, but would have been exacerbated due to the stress of prison. His disconnection from community would make re-entry difficult. He would struggle with homelessness and mental illness, increasing his likelihood for recidivism.
Outcome: The city attorney would refer to mental health treatment program. He would agree to a treatment plan and be under court supervision until completion, as well as work with a probation officer. On successful completion of the program, his charges would be dismissed. If he violated the terms of his treatment program, he could be charged with a misdemeanor but would not have a felony record.
A 19-year-old was caught spray painting a government building. It is not her first offense. When caught, she was brutally assaulted by a police officer who has had multiple complaints for use of force. The bodycam video shows the officer assaulting the teenager after she was in custody, handcuffed and complying with orders. Do you:
Outcome: The young woman would be 24-years-old when she is released from prison. She would have a felony on her record—making it difficult to obtain a job and receive public assistance. The officer responsible would not face any charges and any discipline would be left to the discretion of the police department.
Outcome: The young woman would participate in a short-term program and participate in a restorative justice program in which she amends her actions, as well as does community service under the supervision of a case manager. The officer who assaulted her would be charged and would face trial, in which a jury would determine his guilt.
A 30-year-old woman repeatedly contacted the police reporting incidents of domestic abuse. Recently, she attempted to leave and her abuser began to assault her. She stabbed him in self-defense and called the police, but by the time they arrived, the ambulance could not resuscitate. Do you:
Outcome: The woman would be 70-years-old when released from prison. She would have not been able to parent her children and would return to the community with little to no resources. With a felony record and limited employment history, it would be difficult for her to obtain a job and receive public assistance. She will never have received support for any PTSD from years of abuse.
Outcome: She would not have a felony on her record, making it easier for her to get a job and receive public assistance. Once released from jail, she will still have the necessary community connections to receive support for any PTSD resulting from years of abuse and the economic security to help her stay safe. She can undergo therapy and work on getting custody back and supporting her family.
Vote Like Your Rights Depend On It
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